Flexible form factors such as laptops that can be adjusted into tablet PCs are nothing new. But a flexible display interface is quite another thing, and it appears from a patent application that Nokia is working on just such a display interface.
On Jan. 14, Nokia filed a patent for a flexible interface with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Go Rumors reported. The technology is described in the patent abstract as a "user interface including a flexible display configured to display graphical objects and a controller configured to detect a first bend and determine a resulting first foldline, determine a graphical object being intersected by the first foldline and execute a function associated with the graphical object."
Associated images show a plane folded end-to-end, in a shape like a soup can; another image is bent lengthwise into a C with its open face up and labeled a bowl. Another image, labeled "tent/roof," is similarly bent but with its open side facing down.
The idea is that not only would a smartphone be able to bend into these shapes-and, for example, be worn on a cuff-but, also, folding the device in a certain way or specifically positioning the device would convey to it certain instructions, such as to place a call or perform a particular search.
"A user can thus answer an incoming call simply by rolling the phone 700 or bending it into a position where it rests in a hand. This is an action that is highly intuitive to use," states the patent.
It continues farther on, "Bending the phone from top to bottom in this manner to accept a call has an additional advantage in that the phone 700 itself acts as a shield for the earphone 702 and a microphone (not shown), thus shielding the environment from the sound from the earphone and shielding the microphone from surrounding noise."
The technology, the patent states, could additionally be applied to "portable electronic devices such as laptops, PDAs, mobile communication terminals, electronic books and notepads, and other electronic devices offering access to information."
Nokia pointed out that this technology is unlike current liquid crystal displays, which can be rotated on their axes, but not deformed, and is different from earlier proposed ideas.
"Prior art demonstrates the value of incorporating the deformation of computing objects for use as input for computer processes," the patent states. "However, in this document, we propose methods for interacting with flexible displays that rely on deformations of the surface structure of the display itself."
Nokia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Such an innovation could be a boon to the phone maker, which has struggled against falling market share in recent quarters. In a Nov. 11 report, Strategy Analytics wrote that Apple had surpassed Nokia as the world's most profitable handset vendor.
"Apple overtook Nokia for the first time, which recorded a low $1.1 billion of operating profit. With strong volume, high wholesale prices and tight cost controls, the PC vendor has successfully broken into the mobile phone market in just two years," Alex Spektor, an analyst with Strategy Analytics, wrote in the report.
Conversely, on Oct. 13 Nokia entered the PC space with the introduction of the Booklet 3G.
The competition between Apple and Nokia has also spilled into the legal arena, with each accusing the other of patent infringement. While the two have logged multiple complaints, their patent issues have yet to land them together in a courtroom. Analysts have said it seems at this point unlikely that the two companies will eventually face off in a court trial.