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Ahead of the curve: Samsung, LG and the bendable phone

Flexible and foldable smartphones may be years away, but Samsung and LG are laying the groundwork today.

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As part of a promotional video by Samsung Display, the company illustrates what a foldable device could look like. Samsung

One day, you may be able to fold, roll and stretch your smartphone, turning the device into a tablet, laptop or TV -- whatever the situation requires.

Sounds farfetched? South Korean tech giants Samsung Electronics and LG are already working on this kind of futuristic flexible display technology. Samsung said last month that some of its first designs for device manufacturers are expected by the end of next year. A finished product for consumers would come sometime after that.

"Personally, I believe that design innovation using a flexible displays will be one of the most important factors in the future," Samsung Display executive Chang Hoon Lee said at a New York investor forum in November.

With smartphone upgrades only showing modest improvements year over year, many analysts and tech executives see flexible displays as a potential leap in innovation that could provide a spark to the industry. The ability to stretch and roll a device could change how we use our phones, and may finally break the standard mold of a rectangular slab with a large touchscreen display.

Yet as exciting as they sound, these technologies likely won't hit store shelves soon. Some analysts say foldable displays are still far from reaching the mainstream market, noting that their production is still too pricey and other parts of a phone -- such as the battery -- can't yet fold.

"The actual manufacturing of these things in volume with take time," said Gartner analyst Paul O'Donovan, who predicted mass production of foldable displays is still five years away.

Hints of what's to come are already in the market. Last year, Samsung released the Galaxy Round, a unique smartphone curved as the vertical axis, and this year, it launched Galaxy Note Edge, which utilizes a curved display that drapes over one side of the phone, acting as a ticker or extra set of icons. LG also added to the curved screen mix with the G Flex, which has a body that contours around your cheek and can actually bend a little if you accidentally sit on it. While eye-catching, these phones were seen as more experiments than true mass-market products.

Samsung, LG and others may just be getting started, as many tech companies hope to create foldable and bendable smartphones in the future using organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display technology built on plastic instead of glass. Further down the road, Samsung hopes to create stretchable displays that might render tablets or projector screens obsolete.

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Samsung's Lee offered a roadmap for the company's display technology moving forward, though the slide doesn't include dates. Samsung

Beyond invigorating a market in need of innovation, foldable displays could potentially drive smartphone sales growth, which has slowed to the single digits in most developed countries, according to researcher IDC. These displays might also give firms including Samsung and LG an advantage against Chinese handset makers, which have been growing quickly selling cheaper phones, but may lack the capability to quickly follow on such an innovation.

"It takes a lot of investment and right now Samsung and LG are the only ones that are doing it," said Charles Annis, a DisplaySearch analyst.

Samsung's Lee said last month that his company plans to use flexible displays to both reshape the high-end phone market and create new markets. There remain, however, many challenges to work out first.

For now, price is a major issue. OLED displays are already being used in some smartphones, but OLED flexible displays are still seen as too expensive, especially compared with cheaper LCD displays. Gartner's O'Donovan said flexible phones could at first become ultra-premium products for a very small group of people until they can be made cheaper for the broader public.

"They can make them," Annis said. "The real question is reliability and can they make money on them."

Addressing that concern in his presentation, Samsung's Lee said the cost "could be rather extensive in the initial stage due to new investment," but Samsung is working to cut back on costs to make the displays competitively priced against LCD or flat OLED displays.

Manufacturers also need to figure out how to make a phone's backplate, circuits, battery and display cover bend along with the display. Lee said his company is researching some of those issues already, such as new kinds of display covers made of harder plastic or more flexible glass. US glassmaker Corning, whose Gorilla Glass display cover is used in many top-tier smartphones, is also developing a flexible glass called Willow.

In the end, O'Donovan said flexible devices will create entirely new ways of using a phone, but it's hard to predict if people will be interested. There are still a lot of things to consider when dealing with "devices that can be multiple things and can take multiple formats," he said, such as how to share with others a phone that's also a big-screen TV.

Still, he added that he could find himself interested in a device that would convert from a phone to a laptop, letting him pack just one device while traveling. "Now that would be really cool," he said.