If you compare the phone in your pocket to the model before it, you probably won’t find a lot of change. Maybe a faster processor and a bigger screen, but those are small potatoes. The last time phones underwent any big hardware shift was when manufacturers began swapping dim LCD screens for bright OLEDs a few years ago. This year, another big change is in the works: phones with curved screens. Samsung’s Galaxy Round bends in from the sides, and LG’s G Flex bows inward from the top and bottom. Apple has also filed a patent for a curved battery, a critical component for a contoured phone.
At first glance, curved OLED screens could appear to be just a marketing stunt. But according to Raymond Soneira, an analyst who specializes in screens and the founder of DisplayMate Technologies, a concave screen subtly magnifies a user’s face, which helps block light pollution and reduces glare. With less interference from ambient light, screens are easier to read, and users won’t feel the need to crank up the brightness and drain their batteries.
Curves are also one step forward in the march toward fully flexible displays. LG engineers built the G Flex’s OLED with plastic instead of hardened glass and used a battery assembled in stacks. The design changes allow the phone to bend slightly when pressed. According to Stephen Forrest, a researcher who runs an OLED research lab at the University of Michigan, developers are well on their way to creating moldable, virtually unbreakable screens that roll up as easily as newspapers or magazines. A few product generations from now, static, inflexible screens may seem as outdated as flip phones.
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science.