Researchers have developed the first-ever bendable smartphone

Calling it “a completely new way” of physically interacting with mobile devices, Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University, and his colleagues have developed what they are hailing as the first ever full-color, high-resolution, wireless flexible smartphone.

The device, which has been dubbed ReFlex, enables users to experience physical tactile feedback while interacting with various apps by bending it, the designers explained recently in a statement. A video shows the device being bent in different directions to turn pages in a book backward and forwards, and the popular game Angry Birds being played by flexing the phone.

“When this smartphone is bent down on the right, pages flip through the fingers from right to left, just like they would in a book. More extreme bends speed up the page flips,” Dr. Vertegaals said. “Users can feel the sensation of the page moving through their fingertips via a detailed vibration of the phone. This allows eyes-free navigation, making it easier for users to keep track of where they are in a document.”

ReFlex is based on a high definition 720p LG Display Flexible OLED touch screen powered by an Android 4.4 “KitKat” board mounted to the side of the display. Bend sensors installed behind the display can detect the force being used to bend the screen, and a haptic actuator recreates the sense of touch. Combined, they can be used as input devices for various applications.

Device could be commercially available by the year 2021

In addition, ReFlex is said to be equipped with a voice coil which allows the phone to simulate a variety of forces, including friction, through vibrations in the display screen. Combined with the use of passive force feedback experienced when the display is bent, this enables a highly realistic simulation of actual physical forces while the user interacts with virtual objects, they said.

“This allows for the most accurate physical simulation of interacting with virtual data possible on a smartphone today,” explained Dr. Vertegaal. “When a user plays the ‘Angry Birds’ game with ReFlex, they bend the screen to stretch the sling shot. As the rubber band expands, users experience vibrations that simulate those of a real stretching rubber band. When released, the band snaps, sending a jolt through the phone and sending the bird flying across the screen.”

He and his colleagues officially unveiled the prototype model of the ReFlex smartphone during the Conference on Tangible Embedded and Embodied Interaction (TEI) in The Netherlands last week. They have also published a study detailing how the device works, which can currently be viewed online, and predict that bendable mobile devices could be available to consumers within the next five years.


Feature Image: User navigating pages by bending the smartphone; feels pages flip through fingers. (Credit: Human Media Lab)