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Stretchable OLEDs let you fold, resize your screen

Is the display on your phone too small for you? If this prototype pans out, the solution will be simple. Stretch it.

prototype OLED stretching
A prototype OLED being stretched by 20 percent of its size (center) and by 45 percent (right). Dr. Zhibin Yu

The Holy Grail of computer screens, something you can fold up and put in your pocket, is getting very close.

UCLA researchers have created a prototype of an OLED screen that easily folds, and also stretches enough to increase in size by 45 percent. The researchers' prototype isn't a fully functioning screen--it just shines the color of a blue sky--but it's proof that the major ingredients work.

The first hints that foldable computer screens were possible arrived with OLED screens that could bend a little bit. Then came OLED screens that were flexible enough to roll around a pencil.

Truly stretchable displays could bring about the long-sought tablet or e-reader that you can roll or fold and put in your pocket. The technology could also be used for wearable electronics, implantable electronics, robot skin, and solar cells that can be stretched over curved and irregularly shaped surfaces. Technology Review's Kristina Grifantini suggests cell phones that expand and contract. Think pocketable phone that expands to become a mini tablet.

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The prototype stretchable OLED is a sandwich--stretchable, light-emitting plastic between layers of transparent, stretchable, electrically conductive plastic. The key to the light-emitting plastic is that it's infused with carbon nanotubes.

Several stretchable displays have been prototyped in recent years, but the UCLA device is the first to have all its components truly stretchable. "All materials in the device--the electrodes, semiconductor, and dielectric--are stretchable," UCLA professor Qibing Pei said.

Sure there are serious uses for this stuff. But it could also be fun to mess around with. Picture the comics-on-Silly-Putty effect with photos and video clips.