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Phones with flapping, folding screens are closer than you think

Ultra-thin displays that can fold, flex and flap in the wind? The future of phones is heading closer to this direction.

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Royole's ultra-thin screens can do the wave.

Angela Lang/CNET

Flexible phones are back on the menu.

Though we've seen flexible screens in Samsung's Galaxy phones, 2013's LG G Flex phone and LG's OLED TV that rolls up like a poster from this year's CES, we still haven't seen a completely bendable phone.

But a small company based in Fremont, California named Royole (pronounced "royal") is hoping to get close. It has developed superthin OLED displays, about 0.01-millimeter thick, which flex, fold and even flap in the wind. It's also working on the phone hardware to go with it.

Because this concept is seen as a possible direction for future phones, some big-time phone makers have already begun toying with this idea. Apple, for instance, has patents for a foldable phone with a flexible display. And Samsung is also reportedly working on a phone with an "unbreakable" OLED screen that's flexible too. These devices may serve as the innovative push the industry needs to sell more phones now that the sales are slowing down,  

Now playing: Watch this: Bending phone boundaries with Royole's flexible displays
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Royole's bendable phone design envisions a wraparound device you can either use straightened out, like a candybar phone, or bend around your wrist. Though the prototype wasn't ready at our meeting earlier this week, Royole promises that its flexible phone will make its way to the IFA conference in Berlin, which kicks off next week.

A rendering of Royole's wraparound phone.

Royole

Though headquartered in California, Royole has factories in China and mostly works with other companies to put their flexible displays on everything from clothes and cars to speakers. Some products you can buy now, like a $900 (roughly £700, AU$1,230) felt top hat with a screen that hugs the crown. Others, like the aforementioned wraparound phone are still in development.

I briefly took a look at Royole's displays up close, and while they weren't touchscreens, they were indeed, vibrant and have a sharp 200-to-300 pixel per inch density. They were also very light. One flapped consistently as a fan blew underneath it.

We've seen concepts like the wraparound phone before. Back in 2016, Lenovo showed off its CPlus concept phone that aimed to do the same thing. Combining the features of your phone with the portability of a wearable, the CPlus wrapped around your wrist and you can flick through the display with your finger. Even back then the conversation of a flexible phone future surfaced.

In addition to Royole and Lenovo, big-name tech companies are toying with the idea. These days, both Samsung and Huawei are reportedly working on "foldable" phones. While these devices are rumored to have two screens side-by-side connected with a hinge, much like the ZTE Axon M, phone makers are at least experimenting with the form factor.

As all these companies big and small race to produce these bendable displays and hardware, your ability to purchase the world's first mass-produced flexible phone may come sooner than you think.

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