From today's MSNBC:
Samsung's concept flexible AMOLED transparent screen and tablet can also be used as a real-time interpreter.
By Poornima Gupta and Noel Randewich
Tablets with paper-thin screens that can be folded and tucked into your back pocket, artificial intelligence and augmented reality — the stuff of science fiction may be coming to a store near you.
It's been two years-plus since Apple launched the iPad and spawned rival tablets from the likes of Samsung, Amazon.com, Sony and now Google and Microsoft.
Much of the competition so far has centered on making smartphone and tablets lighter, slimmer, faster and longer-running than their predecessors, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. The increasingly crowded marketplace is also galvanizing hardware designers and software engineers to explore new technologies that may revolutionize the look and feel of mobile devices in coming years.
"We should think beyond just the touchscreen device," said Lin Zhong, a professor at Rice University who does research on mobile systems. "Why do we have to hold tablets, carry many displays? We should think about wearable computers."
Some researchers are experimenting with wearable devices, such as Google Glass, a stamp-sized electronic screen mounted on eyeglass frames to record video, access email and surf the Web. Others, like Microsoft, are investigating the use of 3-D cameras to create images that pop up when a person calls. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal.)
Samsung has a concept video that shows a bendable, transparent 3-D smartphone-hybrid tablet that can also be used as a real-time interpreter.
Few of these new technologies will hit store shelves any time soon — companies and researchers are more actively working on touchscreen innovations in the near term.
In particular, organic-light-emitting diodes, or OLED, is widely touted as the successor to liquid crystal displays. OLED displays, such as in Samsung's Galaxy Note smartphone, are lighter, thinner and tougher than current displays.
The main attraction of OLED at first are their ruggedness, but the technology could one day allow tablets to be folded or rolled up like a newspaper. Reaching that point poses challenges like making the delicate chips and components inside them more flexible and resistant to damage.
"Flexible and foldable displays will first be implemented on smaller sizes like smartphones," said Rhoda Alexander, IHS iSuppli's tablet analyst. "Tablets may follow in a later progression, once manufacturing costs and yields have been tested."
An unfolding NewSSlate concept developed by Innovation+Bermer Labs shows a foldable tablet that one can use to read news and watch videos. These are not expected to be ready for prime time for another few years.
Next up: Wraparound glass
Apart from experimenting with various materials in their own labs, manufacturers are partnering with premier academic institutions in their quest for the most interactive screens. Samsung is working with Stanford University's chemical engineering department, and Microsoft is working with Rice University.
Professor Zhenan Bao's team at Stanford has developed stretchable, super-sensitive and solar-powered "electronic skin," or sensors that can feel a touch as light as that of a fly. One of its obvious applications is in touchscreens, and Bao said the research has generated a lot of inquiries from companies.
"Right now there is a lot of interest in having sensors in the screen that can have pressure input for the touchscreen," Bao said. "Companies are also basically looking for replacement material for the current silicon that is cheaper and compatible with plastic substrate but has the same performance level."
Specialty glass company Corning, famous for its "gorilla glass" used in Apple devices, has an ultra-slim flexible glass called "willow glass" that has the potential to enable displays to be wrapped around a device. Corning said it is currently shipping samples of willow glass, which is compatible with OLED displays, to companies.
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