Samsung is developing stretchable OLED displays for future wearables

Foldable screens remain an exotic piece of technology that can only be found in expensive consumer products, but Samsung is also busy making stretchable, “free-form” displays. The research is still in the early stages, but it could enable future wearables and fashion items we can only dream of today.

Samsung has been working on flexible and stretchable OLED display technology for over a decade. Case in point, the first time the company showcased some of that technology was at CES 2011. Foldable displays are currently featured in consumer devices like the Galaxy Z Fold and the Galaxy Z Flip, and other manufacturers like Royole and Xiaomi are experimenting with different form factors that go beyond the typical slab of glass and metal smartphone.

Stretchable displays are on a different stage of development, and they’ve appeared only sporadically in tech demos throughout the years. But now that the foldable devices are reaching select end users and manufacturers are getting creative at making them more affordable, Samsung’s engineers have been dedicating more of their time towards making stretchable displays a commercial reality.

Samsung says it’s made significant progress on developing “free-form” displays that can be “stretched in all directions like rubber bands”

The Korean tech giant believes stretchable displays will be big in the near future, and confirmed as much in a paper published last week by researchers at Samsung’s Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT).

According to Samsung, the biggest obstacle at this stage is finding the right materials and structure to make stretchable displays more reliable. One would assume the company has learned a great deal from the “Foldgate” issues that plagued early iterations of its foldable devices.

Samsung says it’s made significant progress on developing “free-form” displays that can be “stretched in all directions like rubber bands,” with prototypes that can be stretched by up to 30 percent without getting damaged. To demonstrate the new display tech, researchers created a heart rate monitor that integrates a photoplethysmography sensor and attaches to the skin to perform continuous measurements.

The researchers didn’t use a high resolution display like the ones we see on current high-tech devices, but they were able to stretch it for more than 1,000 times without any issues, and the sensor was able to pick up a 2.4 times stronger signal than can be achieved using an ordinary fixed silicon sensor.

The magic that makes this proof of concept display stretchable is its structure. Samsung integrated OLED pixels into “islands” made of a special material called an elastomer and disposed in a grid pattern with cracked metal wires connecting them to a display driver chip. Special attention has gone into chemically treating the elastomer so it’s more resistant to heat and to some of the materials involved in semiconductor manufacturing processes like photolithography.

While we don’t expect to see stretchable Galaxy phones or tablets anytime soon, this display technology seems ideal for wearables and integration into clothing items, among other things.

Other companies like Royole are also working on stretchable displays using micro-LED technology, so it’s only a matter of time before we see more applications to this new kind of display technology.