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Industry Insight

PaperPhone: The Smartphone of the Future?

Last week,

By Richard Romano
Published: May 6, 2011

Last week, I was the organizer of a Division-level Toastmasters speech contest down in Albany and after the contest the winners were getting their pictures taken. One winner’s club-mate handed me his iPhone and asked if I would take a picture of the both of them. He warned me, though, that it was what he was calling an “iPhone Razor.” I looked at the glass display and noticed that it was exceedingly cracked and, in fact, I quickly figured that any swipe with my finger on the display could easily turn the iPhone into something akin to a deli slicer. iSlice? Yowch.

We love the flexibility of our smartphones, but sometimes we wish they were a bit more—literally—flexible. That is, bendable. Or at the very least, lighter-weight. Or at the very very least, not quite as fragile.

So it was with some interest that this morning I read about the PaperPhone, a new product prototype being developed at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Says ABC News:

Developed with help from researchers at Arizona State University, the prototype of what the researchers call a “flexible iPhone” is made of super-thin, ultra-light bendable film, but makes calls, stores books and plays music.

Like Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, the PaperPhone uses electronic ink to display content. But instead of using glass, the PaperPhone relies on high-tech bendable plastic material developed at ASU's Flexible Display Center.

The futuristic phone is about as thin as a credit card (but more flexible), less than one-sixth the weight of an iPhone 4 and has a 3.7-inch diagonal screen.

Not only is it easy to hold, [Roel Vertegaal, associate professor of computer science and director of the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University] said, the durable material is better for the environment.

“It’s very robust—you can hit it with a hammer,” he said. And, “it uses less electricity.”

[caption id="attachment_5278" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Image from Human Media Lab, Queen's University, Canada"][/caption]

Dang, that’s what is missing from my iPhone; the ability to hit it with a hammer. I can’t wait for iWhackAMole to replace Angry Birds.

The developers are also touting a new bendable UI about which I am a bit less sanguine:

Instead of pushing buttons, Vertegaal said, people could bend the phone for navigation -- bending down both sides of the phone could open up an application, dog-earing the top right corner could scroll forward.

Yeah, I’m not sure about that. But who knows? We have quickly adapted to mouseless touchscreen navigation, so maybe this will catch on, although I doubt it.

I recall 2004, which I think I called The Year of the Flexible Display, given all the e-paper prototypes that were proliferating at the time. That market didn’t quite take off the way we had envisioned, but e-book and readers have been a bit of a runaway success. Whether the PaperPhone goes anywhere will depend on the extent to which it can be manufactured at a price point that will make it relatively affordable, at least to the technology early adopters. My guess is that it would take an Apple to invest in this kind of technology before it saw an effective integration into iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices. But a guy can dream, can’t he?

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.



By Adam on May 06, 2011

Sounded interesting until I watched the video: http://goo.gl/9l3r7 Not as cool as I thought and actually light years away from iPhone. The whole bending of the screen in order to generate an action such as a Click is definitely not the same as touching or swiping the screen.

I think the future is more Sixth Sense: http://goo.gl/tNHqH


By Jim Olsen on May 09, 2011

FYI - Richard and I both live in Saratoga Springs. He forgot to tell you that our recycling center already has a special bin just for "hybrid" electronic/paper thingamajigs like this. Now that's a futuristic city! :)


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