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28 Mar 2015 - 12:25:59

Foldable smartphones, tablets get closer to reality

By Brooke Crothers

Published November 07, 2014


A Samsung display. (Samsung)


A Semiconductor Energy Laboratory (SEL) display (SEL)

Tablets that collapse into phones. Smartphones that fold up like wallets. Those are coming and a Japanese company has the goods to prove it.  

At a recent event in Japan, Semiconductor Energy Laboratory (SEL), demonstrated a display that can be folded in three.  

 It's not hard to see how this kind of technology could cause a sea change in device development. Products will expand and collapse at will. Open a device as a tablet at a coffee shop then fold it into a smartphone on your way out the door.  

This is a big step up from the curved displays available today from Samsung on its Galaxy Note Edge or LG on its G Flex. 

"We are starting to see flexible [or curved displays] show up in phones and watches," said Paul Semenza, an analyst at NPD DisplaySearch.  "However, all of these so far have been 'fixed,' meaning that they are bent or curved once, and then fixed in place behind strengthened glass." 

On the other hand, the display shown off by SEL can be used in consumer devices whose shape is not fixed.  Bendable smartphones and tablets are two examples, Norihiko Seo, General Manager at the Intellectual Property Division of SEL, told 

In a video, SEL shows the display -- based on OLED or Organic Light-Emitting Diode technology, widely used in smartphones today -- laying flat in tablet mode.   Then it is folded in three (what SEL calls "tri-fold") into a smaller size that would be suitable for a smartphone.

So, who's going to use these displays? Microsoft is one possibility, said Seo. SEL and the former Nokia team (now part of Microsoft) have been working together on this technology, according to Seo.

Microsoft declined to comment when contacted by 

And Samsung has been vocal about this technology for a couple of years.  It demonstrated a bendable display back in 2013 that was made of "extremely thin" plastic, instead of glass, that won't break when it's dropped.  Like the SEL display, it can be flexed at will.  

When we will we see real devices?  Samsung has been talking about 2015 to introduce products with foldable displays.  

Seo of SEL -- which is strictly an RD company -- is mum on the subject of products but he adds that his company's displays have attracted a lot of interest from manufacturers. 

DisplaySearch's Semenza thinks it's a few years further out for use in a mass-market, high-volume consumer device

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