How do flexible displays work?

When LG released its roll-up flexible and transparent display, it immediately created massive amounts of interest. Was it really flexible? What were the potential applications? And…where could I get one?

The truth is that flexible display technology has been bubbling on the back burner for a while now, and although those in the know were fully aware of the advancements being made in OLED technology, the general public were taken completely by surprise when Galaxy launched the first generation gadgets on the world. So to give you some background info into the how, where, why and indeed the who of the flexible display world, here’s our brief guide to flexible OLEDs.

OLED Technology


Define flexible display… 

Let’s start off with a clear definition of exactly what flexible displays are. They are, as you would imagine, displays that are fully bendable and can be manipulated without breaking. So that rules out anything made of glass, then, right? Well, not quite. Gorilla Glass’ innovative ‘Willow Glass’ does allow for a flexible glass protection layer for displays, but unsurprisingly, you’ll find that the majority of manufacturers have gone with flexible displays made of plastic.

How do they work? 

Flexible displays work by incorporating OLEDs or organic light emitting diodes. As a current is passed through the pixels create their own light source, which means that unlike LCD screens they don’t need a back light. The circuitry to control the diodes is fused into the layers of plastic. Some systems use a newer AMOLED or active matrix organic light emitting diode system, but currently most are working with the OLED system as it has proven to be reliable, stable and well suited to the flexible nature of the plastic screens.

So why do we need flexible screen technology?


There are several very good reasons to move away from glass screen tech – first and foremost it’s incredibly fragile and breaks easily (as anyone who has ever accidentally sat on their smartphone will testify). It’s also heavy, responsible for the majority of the mass of everything from tablets and mobile phones to the new smart watches. Finally, glass manufacturing is incredibly resource-heavy, so while glass can easily be recycled, its initial creation is not exactly environmentally friendly.

So flexible plastic screens are going to have the edge in:

  • Size – slimmer and with no need for bulky glass means that manufacturers can create more streamlined designs
  • Weight – significantly lighter than their glass cousins
  • Rugged – you can drop, scratch, hit, sit on, stand on, knock off the table and generally mistreat flexible plastic displays and they won’t shatter into a thousand pieces like glass displays tend to do
  • Cheaper – initially the first generation screens will be more expensive (as any 1st-gen tech always is), but the reduction in the amount of material used to create FST-based tech will quickly bring the price of each unit down.

Okay, so any negatives? 

Not really, to be honest. The cost issue initially may put some off, but the incorporation of flexible screen technology into mobile devices in particular will be a real game changer in how technology develops from this point forward. Glass screens have been the real stumbling block for years, and now that FST is a viable alternative, expect the manufacturers to embrace this new concept and run with it.

So who is leading the charge? 

Samsung is, without doubt, the big name in FST. Their first generation flexible screens came out in 2012, although they were a little ‘first generation’ for most people’s liking and perhaps weren’t marketed effectively. People just didn’t ‘get’ why FST was so important, so Samsung is currently regrouping and getting ready to try that launch again. The Galaxy Gear was probably the best known of the FST prototypes; a big, bulky ‘smartwatch’ that had a lot of initial teething problems. However, Samsung is nothing if not responsive and their current generation of Gear watches are a vast improvement on the early versions. They’re currently the world’s largest manufacturer of OLED displays.

Where FST could really make inroads is in the emerging wearable technology marketplace. Items such as Google Glass and a host of other design concepts are ripe for the inclusion of FST. There’s a cluster of Kickstarter appeals for bright sparks who want to incorporate FST into everything from fashion to sports equipment, and of course the military and medical professions are very keen on the whole idea of FST. It lends itself particularly well to combat theatres and operating theatres alike.

However, the last word should go to the developers. Companies such as Plastic Logic have been at the leading edge of FST development from day one, and they can see its potential. Indro Mukerjee, CEO of Plastic Logic recently summed it up rather succinctly:

“Flexible electronics is a reality, already proven through the development and manufacture of plastic, bendable displays and sensors. For the first time a fully organic, plastic, flexible AMOLED demonstration has been achieved with a real industrial fabrication process. This marks the start of a revolution in wearable products, the next frontier in consumer electronics – 2014 will be the year that wearable technology starts to go mainstream.”

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