Flat out on the curve with FlexEnable

84Integrators are always trying to incorporate displays as seamlessly as possible. Joe Young takes a closer look at the flexible screens and sensors that could be a game-changer.

Next time you get into your car, put your integrator hat on and look at the interior design.

You will note that everything is curved, flowing and smooth – everything apart from the screens.

Yes those pesky screens are a major design constraint for manufacturers, which have to put a flat display in a curved, flowing design.

This is so with many displays. On a smart watch the curved wristband has to straighten up for the display, and a curved door on a fridge needs to flatten out to accommodate a screen.

But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Step in FlexEnable. An English company in the process of commercialising technology that can remove the constraints and unlock design freedom in electronic displays – in cars, homes, consumer goods and commercial applications.

The company, which was spun out of the University of Cambridge Department of Physics, has developed organic liquid crystal display (OLCD) and organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens and sensors. They are paper-thin and flexible enough to be wrapped around a pencil.

Not only does this mean screens can be integrated more seamlessly, it will also make the way we interact with displays more natural.

So what exactly is the technology and how can we expect it to be used in the future?

In simple terms, the company has made advances in high-performance organic transistor technology to allow electronics to be manufactured on flexible plastic sheets. And the applications are numerous.

The screen on the curved fridge can be wrapped around the door. For a smart watch it can be wrapped around wrist. Heck the whole armband of a watch can be a screen!

Surfaces you wouldn’t even dream about putting screens on suddenly offer realistic possibilities. The handbag is one candidate. FlexEnable strategy director Paul Cain says the company is working with designers to develop handbags that allow the owner to change the design by changing the display on the screen.

It may seem high-tech and therefore expensive, but FlexEnable has an advantage over the few other players in the flexible display sector.

“Every other flexible display out there uses silicon, but we use the plastic that’s used in making Coke bottles,” Paul says.

“Silicon transistors need a very high temperature to manufacture. We have developed the ability to use organic semiconductors on cheap plastics to achieve flexible displays that can be made at low temperatures and therefore at a much lower cost.

“So that’s our core IP.”

Paul says the flexible display will cost no more than a glass screen, and it has the big advantage of being unbreakable.

Because of the bendable plastic, the displays are scratch and shatter proof, therefore ideal for little ones or industrial use – not to mention light.

“If the 10-inch glass screens on a passenger plane were replaced with plastic OLCD screens, airlines could save $400 per seat in fuel over the seven-year life of the entertainment system,” Paul says.

An OLCD is 10 times lighter than glass, four times thinner, infinitely more robust and isn’t any more expensive. But is the video quality reduced?

Paul says the answer to that question would have been ‘yes’ 10 years ago when he started at the company. However, today the electrical performance of the plastic transistors is better than that of silicon transistors in home TV sets.

“They can do just as much colour, just as high video rate and just as large video.”

Then there is the sensor technology.

FlexEnable has produced prototypes of fingerprint, image and pressure sensors the size of coasters made on the flexible plastic.

This could mean big savings for companies such as Apple, which currently uses the more expensive silicon technology to achieve fingerprint functionality.

Saving money is great, but the real excitement for integrators will be all the potential applications of large flexible sensors.

For home security you can have a sensor wrapped around a door handle to register fingerprints and grant access to a ‘verified’ person. No keys needed.

In a car, fingerprint sensors can be wrapped around a steering to identify the driver, turn on the engine, switch on the driver’s favourite radio station and adjust the seat and temperature accordingly.

Note how users will be doing natural movements to make the electronic interaction seamless.

Paul says the company is working with manufacturers in Asia right now. He believes we’ll see the first FlexEnable colour displays and sensors in the second half of next year.

Until then we’ll just have to wait for this flexy tech to be ‘rolled out’.

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