I've watched the spread of folding-screen devices from a distance. I've been curious. But with high prices and weird construction and compromises, I often haven't seen the point.
That changed when I took a close-up look at some of the 2020 products boasting folding screens. The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, and even the new folding Moto Razr, made sense when I held them. They're both new, and at the same time, familiar. They're a return to the make-things-small movement in phones back when I first owned a cellphone, back when the thing in my pocket wasn't a giant glass slab.
My mind goes back to the Nintendo DS, which was the original dual-screen device that I thought was insane at first but then won me over. I loved tucking it away, not worrying about exposing the displays.
There's a practical vibe lurking inside folding tablets, like Lenovo and Dell concept devices that can become a laptop or a tablet or a even a larger-screened folding monitor. Maybe you think I'm crazy to say it's practical. I'm reminded of where I thought hybrid laptops would head eventually, when I saw the first tablet-laptop hybrids at CES 2010. I've wanted the best of both worlds, and maybe these folding devices could get there.
But there's a much bigger future to folding that doesn't even feel addressed yet. I'm curious about transforming, bending devices that aren't tablets or phones. A few directions immediately come to mind.
Wearables: The ultimate all-screen device?
Smartwatches are, now, almost all little pucks on wrist straps, tiny screens on our wrist. Larger curved screens have been prototyped before, and even flexible concepts. I wouldn't want anything that was too expensive or that would break. But imagining a way to put a larger, wrap-around-wrist display on a wearable seems like an obvious next step.
I don't need a larger display on my watch, necessarily, but some people might want larger readouts or easier-to-see text. Others might just want to show off, have a glowing band that could ambiently pulse or change designs.
Companies have been exploring prototypes of this idea for years: Lenovo toyed with a wrist-worn bendable phone concept back in 2016. The recent, massive, awkward Nubia Alpha watch had a wraparound display. Heck, Samsung had a curved-display watch back in 2014. Back in 2019, it seemed like TCL may have had a foldable phone-watch concept up its sleeve.
I'm not sure whether I'd prefer a single, slightly flexy curved display, or a display broken into pieces that could bend around my wrist in individual segments. Or, maybe, a flexible smart watch strap with a secondary display. All are intriguing and could be possible. Many will probably be totally annoying and impractical. But I bet experimentation continues at a faster clip, now that folding phones are becoming more normal.
VR and AR headsets: More flexible fit?
Current VR goggles are getting more comfortable but are still pretty rigid, bulky things. Displays, in particular, add to the rigid feel. Some VR headsets already have angled twin displays to get a larger field of view, like StarVR or Pimax. What if a headset could bend around and adjust more closely to someone's face, adjusting on the fly?
AR headsets and smart glasses are already using types of display tech that use miniature projectors to create images on glass or even directly onto the wearer's retina. Those technologies might still make the most sense, but having display tech that could fold might mean hardware that could fold down more easily for travel, like funky sunglasses I could tuck in my shirt pocket.
Companies like Samsung, LG and Lenovo — some of the key early pioneers in folding-screen technology — just happen to be companies actively involved in VR and AR headset technology, too.
Maybe some of these headsets wouldn't literally fold, but the ability to paint a flexible OLED display on an unusual frame could allow headsets to develop into more customized shapes. I have no idea what could happen, but the possibilities seem wild.
Future game consoles, like a folding Switch
So, speaking of the Nintendo DS, I keep thinking about the Nintendo Switch. It's easily my favorite game console of the moment. I love that it's portable. But even in the slightly-smaller form of the Switch Lite, it's not quite small enough. The Nintendo 3DS was able to fold up, packing two screens in a smaller package.
Could a folding console manage to make something like the Switch pack up flatter and be a lot more practical to carry around? I'd love to see it happen. Right now, folding displays equal an expensive upsell. Maybe, further down the line, a variation on folding or very adjacent dual hinged displays could make a Switch that returns to the spirit of the Nintendo DS, and manages the best of both worlds.
If I could dream a little further (and weirder), maybe a future folding-screen console could have multiple docking spots so detachable Joy-Cons could move around and work in vertical and horizontal modes, too.
PC companies are just starting to follow the Switch formula, a full three years after the original Switch debuted. It might take a lot longer for any folding concepts to make their way into viable, affordable microconsoles, but I'd love to see it happen.
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