Get ready for curved screens. Apple is the latest tech company interested in screens that go beyond flatness, as evidenced by a new patent it has received for a "curved touch sensor."
The patent, No. 8,603,574, is actually for a method to create a curved touch surface, meaning that it could be a screen or control panel for a smartphone, a watch, a TV, a computer monitor or any other device. The method involves depositing a "conductive thin film on a flexible substrate to form at least one touch sensor pattern."
As mobile devices struggle with having enough screen surface, Apple joins LG, Samsung and others in investigating the possibilities of curved screens. Last month, LG leaked images of a 6-inch phone that is curved along the vertical length. It's called the Flex even though it's not, you know, flexible. In October, LG announced that it will begin selling curved phones in 2014.
Apple's patent raises the possibility of curved screens if and when the company ever gets around to releasing an iWatch. A screen that curved part or even all the way around a wrist would offer more display space than, say, Samsung's Galaxy Gear smart watch, which parks a small flat screen on one side of a wrist.
Samsung has already released its Galaxy Round smartphone, which has a 5.7-inch display that is slightly curved horizontally. A functional difference made possible by the curve is a Round Interaction capability, allowing users to see data about battery life and other notifications by tilting the phone a bit.
LG and Samsung already sell curved, high-end OLED TV sets, and industry research firm IHS Display Bank has predicted that the global flexible display market will reach $10 billion by 2019. Samsung has been showing for some time curved as well as bendable screens as works-in-progress at trade shows, and the company received a U.S. patent in May for a smartphone with a curved display.
New Form Factors
Whether a screen on a mobile device is fixed in its curve or bendable could make a substantial difference in its perceived value. A bendable device could potentially fold for storage in a pocket, allowing users to carry more screen in the same pocket. A permanently curved screen, however, could take up more space in a shirt or other pocket, with relatively little additional functional value.
Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, told us that the "most important aspect is the possibility of new form factors," offering new designs, styles and bragging rights. He added that there is some possibility that such a device with a fixed, curved screen could offer a bit more surface area on the sides, or its curved sides could better hide the bulge under the middle of the screen, but those are minor added values.
"There doesn't seem to be technological advantage to a curved screen," he said, adding that he wasn't sure if "anyone wants a curved phone anyway."