We live in a world of screens. And most Americans spend a lot of time with them — roughly 7.4 hours per day, by some estimates. And while screens help us work and stay in touch, they're not exactly...friendly. They're rigid. They're fragile. And they lack a certain warmth.
That's what makes what Polyera, a Chicago-based firm, has to show off so truly different and interesting — a screen that can bend and twist without breaking. This isn't just the curved screen that you see in some phones and televisions today. This is a screen that's had its internal components redesigned entirely, so that it can move like a fabric.
"Right now we design electronic devices that are built on rigid little bricks, so our devices end up looking like rigid little bricks," Philippe Inagaki, Polyera's chief executive, said. "We wanted to make a fundamental technology that would completely open up the design capabilities. Now we're playing with materials that are more warm, and integrating electronics with materials that are more like leather than they are metal or glass."
The company revealed the first real application of this technology this week, announcing a new wearable device called Wove — basically a screen that you can wrap around your wrist like a bracelet. The screen is housed in a cuff that has links like a watch band. Users can interact with Wove when it's rolled up or when it's flat.
The e-ink display — similar to what you'd see in a Kindle, for example — is touch-sensitive and energy efficient. So, unlike many of the the smartwatches that we've seen hit the market, which essentially shrink a smartphone display down to the size of a watch face, the Wove can last multiple days without having to be charged.
Being able to wrap Wove around your wrist also means that you have a lot more screen real estate to work with. Polyera's already designed geometric patterns that you can have in static display while you're not using Wove, to make it a little more fashionable. The display for this first model is in grayscale, but there are plans for a color version down the line, Inagaki said.
The displays we use every day are really layers of materials — silicon-based semiconductors, glass, etc — that form what we think of as a screen. Polyera has spent a decade reworking the building blocks of these components and electronics to create flexible transistors that allow for the increased range of motion from top to bottom.
Whereas current curved screens are still rigid and brittle, the technology Polyera has built can be shaped and pushed over and over again. (Though crumpling it up is a step too far.)
Inagaki said that Polyera wanted to focus on building a wearable first, to show off the full capabilities of the screen technology. As the company continued to work on designing its product, he said, Wove could address a lot of problems with current wearables, including limits on battery life, how fragile they are and, quite honestly, how unfashionable they can be.
"What we see is that people want larger displays," he said. But, critically, he said, they don't want to wear them. Even the Apple Watch is pushing it on size, as compared to some wrists. Do you really want to pin a tablet to your shirt?
"If you’re wearing larger displays, you don't want to turn into a black slab," he said. And, he added, even when the screen is in use, that lit-up look isn't exactly flattering. "You don't want to look like a Christmas tree, either," he said.
The wearables market is getting crowded, and it admittedly may be hard for Polyera to get real traction. Consumers, in general, have yet to warm up to wearables enough to call them a mainstream product. So it may be tough for the Wove to compete against the likes of Fitbit, Apple and others with a instantly recognizable brand name behind them.
But the technology implications could go far beyond what kind of wristband we may be wearing next year, when the Wove band will launch to consumers. Inagaki said that Polyera is looking at many different applications for this, including flexible high-quality color screens. That means, down the line, we could have tablets that you can roll up and fold like paper.
Those developments, Inagaki said, are at least a few years down the line. For now, Polyera is focusing its efforts on Wove, which will be available to developers in September so they can create software for it. A full consumer launch is targeted for the middle of 2016; the company hasn't announced a price yet.
Inagaki said that the company is already talking to content companies and manufacturers to prepare for a full-scale launch. Polyera is also planning to roll out more details as the product gets closer to launch. But, he said, he wants people to know that this isn't just crazy vaporware — this is a real product that he's been waiting a decade to talk about.
"I joke that my friends will finally know what I’ve been doing for the past ten years," Inagaki said. "They probably think that I never got a real job."