The US Patent & Trademark Office published a new patent application from Microsoft this week that reveals their ongoing work in the area of expandable mobile devices such as a smartphone or mini tablet. The intended goal is to design mobile devices with a flexible display that will be able to almost double in size when needed. The user will be able to expand the display by simply pulling it out of the smartphone's housing as noted in our cover graphic. Microsoft isn't alone in pursuing this kind of device, as a Samsung patent surfaced exactly a year ago this week illustrating the very same concept. Whether expandable mobile devices will ever be able to challenge dual LCD display smartphones, phablets and/or mini tablets is unknown at this time.
Microsoft's Patent Background
Portable electronic devices, such as mobile phones, media players, and tablet computers are increasingly common. These types of devices typically include an integrated display device, and many include dual displays. For example, a mobile device can be hinged to open two display devices side-by-side to form one larger display.
Users typically want the smallest possible devices to conveniently carry in a pocket or purse, but also want devices with larger display surfaces for easier viewing. Display manufacturers are developing flexible displays that may be used to provide a larger display surface than would be typically integrated in a smaller, portable electronic device. However, flexible displays are susceptible to damage when coiled or spooled-up in an extendable device, or when folded in a hinged device.
Microsoft's Expandable Smartphones & Tablets
Microsoft's invention is all about expandable mobile devices. In embodiments presented below, expandable mobile devices include housing parts that slide-engage relative to each other to extend and retract the device. The expandable mobile devices include a flexible display that extends from an interior of the device as one housing part slides out from another housing part. The flexible display also retracts into the interior of the expandable mobile device as the housing parts slide together.
Rollers are integrated in the device and bend the flexible display around a fixed radius to position a first, viewable section of the flexible display approximately parallel to a second, retracted section of the flexible display in a retracted position of the expandable mobile device. The rollers also bend the flexible display through a one-hundred and eighty degree (180.degree) bend that positions the first section of the flexible display approximately parallel to the second section of the flexible display. The second section of the flexible display rolls through the fixed radius over the rollers and extends from the housing part in an extended position of the expandable mobile device.
In other embodiments, the expandable mobile device includes support plates that support the flexible display in both the retracted and extended positions of the device. Additionally, carrier tracks gear-engage the rollers and position the first support plate adjacent the second support plate in the extended position of the expandable mobile device. The first support plate can also be positioned over the second support plate in the retracted position of the expandable mobile device when the first support plate engages the second support plate. The second support plate can also actuate to position the second support plate under the second section of the flexible display in the extended position of the device when the first support plate is positioned adjacent the second support plate.
The device can also include a bistable mechanism to bias the housing parts when the expandable mobile device is extended and retracted.
In implementations, a flexible display may be a display stack of various layers, such as with a touch sensor layer laminated over the AMOLED layer, along with a laminated cover film or a hard coating over the touch sensor layer. In the extended position of the expandable mobile device, the second support plate provides a rigid support surface for the extended flexible display stack.
Microsoft's patent FIG. 1 noted above illustrates examples of an expandable smartphone which includes a flexible display such as a flexible OLED display or flexible AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode) display that self-emits without the need for an integrated backlight. Alternatively, the flexible display may be implemented as a flexible LCD display that is illuminated with a flexible backlight.
Microsoft states that the expandable mobile device may be implemented in any form of a consumer, computer, media playback, communication, navigation, gaming, and/or electronic device that is configured to expand with a flexible display.
Microsoft's patent FIG. 2 noted below further illustrates examples of the expandable mobile device with the integrated flexible display and its various components to support the expansion process.
Microsoft's patent application was originally filed under serial number 224839 in Q3 2011. The Microsoft R&D team responsible for this project has also filed other patents supporting this concept within the last few months. See their October and December patent filings to get the bigger picture.
Until the flexible display is feasible for mass production, we're likely to go through an interim phase with smartphone makers designing dual display smartphones like the one that NEC presented during Barcelona's Mobile World Congress event.
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