10/08/2013 10:51 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Curved smartphone screens may lead to fully flexible devices: Dan Misener

The future is curved. Well, maybe.

Last month, Samsung announced plans to introduce a new smartphone with a curved display. This week, LG confirmed that it will start mass-producing screens for its own curvy handset.

But is a curved display simply a marketing gimmick? Or can it offer practical benefits? 

According to Roel Vertegaal, a professor of human-computer interaction at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., it's a bit of both. 

Vertegaal, who runs the Human Media Laboratory at Queen's, says the underlying technology for these curved displays – flexible OLED – has a number of advantages. For one, FOLED displays are thin, lightweight and durable.

"They don't break," he says. "So you can drop your phone. You can even apply a hammer to it and it won't break."

Additionally, "because they're flexible, you can curve them around objects."

Reportedly, LG's 15-cm display will curve top to bottom, whereas Samsung's 14.5 centimeter display curves side to side. This allows the screen to cover not only the front face of a smartphone, but wrap around the edge, too.

Vertegaal says that flexible OLED displays mean "we can create devices that are more ergonomically fit to the body." A phone with a curved screen might work better in a hand (especially during single-handed use), against a face or in a pocket.

"But those are fairly minor benefits compared to, basically, sexiness."

Why now?

Indeed, for now, curved smartphone screens are mostly about marketing – a way to differentiate a device so it stands out on store shelves.

But in the long term, Vertegaal sees the current moves by LG and Samsung as a step towards completely flexible screens that are bendable, foldable or rollable. And that has wide-ranging implications, not just for the shape of devices, but for the ways in which we interact with those devices.

Flexible OLED displays have been around for a while, but they're difficult to mass-produce.

"It's a really hard thing to produce them because they're all low-temperature processes," Vertegaal explains.

They're also expensive to manufacture, but that may change.

"There's a huge investment that's going on surrounding this. It costs at least, I would say, 150 to 200 million dollars to set up a factory that can produce these things in mass volume. So we've been basically waiting for someone to pull the trigger. And I guess this is it."

If flexible displays become more affordable and widely adopted, it could mean way more screens in the world around us. Because they're made of plastic, flexible OLED displays can be installed in places that would otherwise be too expensive or impractical.

"Essentially, any object can have a display. And it can have a three-dimensional shape to it," says Vertegaal. "This is going to really drastically change the computer user interface landscape. Displays are going to be on every object that's worth augmenting with a display. And it means we can hold data in our hands."

"And so what we're really hoping is that this announcement will open the floodgates of work towards larger displays, displays in even more varied form factors and applications of those displays in more funky user-interface scenarios than just a simple curved phone."

In other words, curved screens are a necessary intermediate step on the way to a fully flexible future.

Funky user interfaces

Vertegaal is no stranger to the "funky" user interfaces he advocates. Much of his work focuses on displays that are bendable, foldable and rollable. And these new displays bring with them new interaction models.

For instance, in 2011's PaperPhone project, "We used bends as a means of navigating through information. So, for example, you could go to the next web page by bending the display. If you want to go back, you bend it the other way. So, a very different way of interacting with computers, that mimics the way paper works."

So, while Vertegaal is excited by the prospect of inexpensive, mass-produced FOLED displays, it's less about the next few months, and more about a flexible, bendy future that's five or 10 years down the line.

"I'm not that excited by a phone with a slight curvature, per se."