LG has been researching foldable and rollable phones for a while now, though the company has yet to bring such a device to the market. All the while, competitors like Samsung and Huawei are carving an identity for themselves as firms willing to experiment with futuristic form factors and materials.
However, a patent filing that surfaced this week suggests LG has far more ambitious ideas for the future. A report from Korean outlet Asia Time (opens in new tab) by way of Android Authority (opens in new tab) has shed light on a pitch for a device that is both rollable as well as foldable.
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The sketches provided are admittedly challenging to parse out at a glance. It seems like part of the display can unfurl and then fold up, extending the available screen real estate while offering the option of a laptop-style form factor. And we know LG has lots of experience with rollable displays, given the LG OLED TV R9 it first showcased at CES in 2019.
However, one look at LG's rollable TV and it's immediately obvious that a similar approach probably couldn't work for a handset, at least in the context of what's technically possible today. In that case, the screen would have to pack down into some kind of long box to essentially house the base of the scroll, perhaps shoehorned alongside other essential components.
Conversely, the design LG is proposing here, with a panel that rolls out and then folds up, extending from a solid candy bar chassis, seems more feasible — but then you have to wonder how anyone could manufacture a panel both malleable enough to roll yet stable enough to fold at a predetermined location?
All the while, as LG wrestles with what can and can't be, its domestic rivals over at Samsung have quickly and quietly become so much better at simply making foldables. The Galaxy Z Flip isn't a perfect device, but it's a landmark achievement in delivering a foldable that is reliable and polished enough to use everyday. The upcoming Galaxy Fold 2 will hopefully right the wrongs of its innovative, yet undercooked predecessor.
Of course, as anyone who follows this industry knows, patent filings don't necessarily correspond to production devices; in most cases, they allow companies to put their stamp on a technological problem they haven't fully solved yet, and that definitely seems to be particularly true of this example. However, given LG's inability to even launch a foldable — let alone a rollable foldable — this one can't help but come across as a little silly. Even TCL, which "previewed" a rollable phone back in March, wasn't able to provide an actual, working prototype of the concept when we went hands-on with a non-functional design dummy unit.
The original story from Asia Time is in Korean, so much is lost in translation. It appears to suggest that LG was actually hoping to launch this device before the end of 2020, but that the company is struggling to improve the durability of the display, which is comprised of 12 layers of film.
Thus, to say there are kinks that need to be worked out in the development of flexible-display phones is an understatement. It's going to take baby steps of iteration — not massive, grandiose leaps of big ideas with no practical foundation — for companies like LG to eventually achieve their vision.