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Are Nokia's flexible phones the future?

At Nokia World in October last year, the Finnish phone maker showed off a working prototype of a smartphone controlled by a flexible frame and display. Called Nokia Kinect, could this prototype be the precursor of the next genuine shift in smartphone design, or is it simply a clever gimmick?

At Nokia World in October last year, the Finnish phone maker showed off a working prototype of a smartphone controlled by a flexible frame and display. Called Nokia Kinect, could this prototype be the precursor of the next genuine shift in smartphone design, or is it simply a clever gimmick?

Firstly, the concept of a flexible display isn't necessarily new, and isn't an innovation driven entirely by Nokia. Most of the major electronics manufacturers, including Sony and Samsung, have shown off proof-of-concept prototypes in the past as well, with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays that are still functional when rolled or folded.

Nokia's attempt takes the idea a step closer to users by introducing a practical application, showing not only that the screen can work while being manipulated, but also that there is a reason to do it.

Bend to zoom

Nokia's Tapani Jokinen(Credit: Nokia)

Tapani Jokinen is the principal designer at Nokia, and explains that using a flexible display wouldn't necessarily replace multi-touch input, but could be used in unison with it.

"The idea is that the Kinetic UI gives a new way to interact with devices; one that is intuitive and simple to use," said Jokinen.

"To perform an action with the Kinetic UI, you physically manipulate the device, and this deformation gives a varying and proportional resistance to the action, and thus feedback to the user. With appropriate mechanical design, the flexibility of the device can be tuned to give varying physical resistance, whilst the software can be tuned to give a proportional and analog response to the input."

Jokinen notes that this could allow for greater user control over certain aspects of the user experience, like gaming, for example. The use of a user interface like the Kinetic UI could also make it easy to use a device when your hands are in gloves — a problem more relevant to those in Finland than in Australia, but this notion could be extrapolated to times when the screen won't accurately detect touch input, like when your hands are wet, for example.

It would also be great to touch the touchscreen less. The Kinetic UI demoed at Nokia World showed how users could use "twisting" commands to scroll through long lists, make selections and zoom in and out. Imagine, then, that you could take the phone out of your pocket, launch your email app and browse through all of your most recent messages without needing to touch the screen at all.

Get your sweaty fingers off the screen. (Credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET)

In fact, the only part of daily smartphone usage that doesn't easily fit into this UI concept is the keyboard, where we imagine the typing experience would be like entering long network passwords on an Xbox 360 using a game controller (a laborious process, if you are unfamiliar with it). Of course, you'd still have a touchscreen, plus recent advancements in the accuracy of voice-controlled text input, like Apple's Siri, mean that you mightn't need to touch the screen at all in the near future.

Idiot-proof

Flexible phones should also be more durable devices, with brittle surfaces like glass and stiff plastic being removed from the equation. Jokinen explained to us that the surface covering the AMOLED display in the Kinect prototype is largely polymeric, and expected to be more fracture resistant and more capable of surviving the drops and knocks of everyday life. In addition, these screens can be reinforced.

"Hard coatings can be applied to the polymer surface to increase the scratch and wear resistance; these coatings are mature technologies — they have been used on resistive touchscreens for many years".

Drop-resistant screens that are able to be used under difficult circumstances? Add waterproofing, and this could be the ultimate tradie phone, if it's not more widely accepted.

There is something distinctly futuristic about a device that is controlled in this way, and, while Nokia will not yet comment on when a flexible phone might be made commercially available, there are some indications that this technology is closer than you might think. Conversations we've had with local industry experts suggest that the first flexible smartphone could be in stores in 2013, which isn't too surprising, given the materials that Nokia is currently using in its Lumia Windows Phone range.

What do you think? Would you buy a flexible smartphone next year if it offered the same smartphone experience you get from current devices? Or, if not a flexible phone, how would you like to see smartphones evolve over the next few years?