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Unfolding Gen 'Fold'

With Samsung unleashing the Galaxy Fold on February 20, 2019, it grabbed quite a few eyeballs and the general populace lauded Samsung with this breakthrough. But it would be unfair to serve Samsung credit in a silver platter when most other tech giants have been in the race with it for long and so many options have sprung up. Let's jump into similar work being done by other brands:

The buffet of foldable display phones was kicked off by Royole Corporation’s Flexpai on Oct. 31, 2018. It definitely was a pioneer and its 2nd Generation Cicada WingTM Fully Flexible Display[1] provides a sleek look when in tablet mode. The drawback is its rubber hinge though which is aesthetically unpleasing.

Next in line is the Samsung. It chose to keep its work hush-hush for quite some time but teased a glimpse of it during the Samsung Developer Conference held in November 2018. This phone now known as the Galaxy Fold has the world’s first ‘Dynamic AMOLED Infinity Flex Display’ and offers a seamless co-display experience with the official video showcasing three different application windows open. Google and the Android Developer Community worked in unison with Samsung to ensure a smooth integration of Android apps and services within the phone.[2] Its hinge is made up of multiple interlocking gears which are concealed by an enclosure giving it a non-clunky look and feel. Also, Samsung invented a new polymer layer and invented a display which is 50 percent thinner than a typical display.[2] Yet, its thickness when folded makes it slightly unappealing for phone use. Lastly, its price point (speculated to start at $1980) is staggeringly high as compared to the Flexpai and may make you want to reconsider.

Moving on to Huawei, which unveiled its foldable phone Mate X at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 which was being held from February 25th – 28th in Barcelona. Its features give it an instant edge since it is thinner (11mm), has a bigger screen (8 inch), folds flatter and looks much classier. Huawei was able to achieve this by their ‘Falcon Wing Design’[3] and by folding their screen outwards since that eliminated the potential damage to the screen. Also, the tablet mode is almost bezel-less but upon folding one part of the display is smaller than the other to accommodate a side bar for a better grip. The attention to detail and ergonomic design helped it earn the ‘Best in Show’ award at MWC 2019.

While most of these phones look more or less the same with subtle indiscernible differences, Xiaomi has a fresh take on this with Dual Flex/MIX Flex (name still undecided). As shown by Image 5, two parts of the tablet turn backwards to make way for a more ergonomic configuration of screen left behind. Not much is known about the device yet, but the glimpse is everything we want to talk about!

Image 5: Screen captures of Xiaomi’s Weibo Video showcasing its CEO Lin Bin using its dual-folding phone

Xiaomi published a patent on April 26, 2018 which talked about the diagrams showcased in Image 6. While the primary focus area of the patent was ‘Verification’, it highlighted a handheld device with a flexible screen upon which the verification techniques were being implemented. Almost a year later, we see the prototype in action.

Oppo has prototyped to stay in the game as well. These images as disclosed on Chinese social media, highlight that their design inclines towards Huawei since it too has a ‘Falcon Wing Design’ and folds outwards with a side bar provided for a gripping structure. While they have been working in this area, they do not plan to make their device commercial as yet given the fact that the market is rife with similar phones and it would be difficult to cut through that.

While Lenovo has secured the patent for a foldable screen in July 2018 and even showcased a prototype with the name ‘Folio’, it’s breaking free from stereotypes by moving away from this race and towards creating a niche for itself with phones which are ‘bendable’ strap-ons rather than ‘foldable’. They aim to make these devices wearable on the wrist.

Another brand which has ventured into this space in Nubia. They displayed their wearable phone ‘Alpha’ at MWC 2019. Nubia has made some bold moves with this device including features such as:

· Air Interaction Mechanics

· Wearable Wallet

· Wearable Navigator

· Wrist Photography[4]

Yet, it is facing widespread criticism for its bulky design which seems unfit for a wearable

Nubia’s patent in this area was published on April 24, 2018 and its patent diagram (Image 11) envisions the flexible panel in the bent state to assist the embodiment of a flexible screen.

Next up we have Google and its patent for a foldable display phone was published in December 2018. Google along with Motorola had multiple patents for foldable displays but here are some of the images from their patent diagrams as showcased in the most relevant patent. These diagrams show the embodiment of the screen that Google had in mind:

The patent description mentions that the embodiment has multiple display drivers and each is responsible for a different pixel region. The device would be capable of enabling a pixel region on the basis of the angle between the sides of the device and an overlap between regions is possible.[5]

While it may look very similar to other devices in this category of phones, its distinguishing factors are:

· Selectable Display

· Laptop-style desktop mode

· Tent-like dual user mode.[6]

Figures 24 and 26 from the patent (Image 13) show Motorola’s logo which could be indicative of the fact that the research work that went into this patent was conducted by Motorola prior to its acquisition by Lenovo since the initial filing date is March 19, 2014 and Lenovo acquired Motorola on October 30, 2014.

A 2016 patent published by Intel shows the diagrams of a foldable device which if rendered would look very similar to Xiaomi’s design of the foldable phone. The code name it is using for this category of devices is ‘Tiger Rapids’. It distinguishes itself since it is speculated to offer three configurations[7]:

· Smartphone

· Mini laptop with a keyboard

· Tablet

We close with the brand which is renowned for its emphasis on good design. Apple. While Apple got its patent published in 2014, not much has been seen or heard since then about their stint with foldable display phones. Here are some patent diagrams to spark your interest though.

Here are the key patents published by brands in the area of foldable display phones:

Figure 1: A comparative study of screens of all the foldable display phones unveiled so far

A lot is still to be seen in this new generation of phones. It is just unfolding!

[1] https://www.royole.com/flexpai

[2] https://news.samsung.com/global/samsung-unfolds-the-future-with-a-whole-new-mobile-category-introducing-galaxy-fold

[3] https://consumer.huawei.com/en/phones/mate-x/

[4] https://www.nubia.com/en/smartwatch.html?country=en

[5] https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/e2/70/02/e574ca603d2fa5/US20180367736A1.pdf

[6] http://pdfaiw.uspto.gov/.aiw?PageNum=0&docid=20180367736&IDKey=9294F2814886&

[7] https://www.techadvisor.co.uk/feature/mobile-phone/intel-foldable-patent-3691284/