Is the flexible paper phone the smart phone of the future?

As if technology hadn’t been moving fast enough, a group at Queen’s University in Canada has created the first smartphone you can bend.

The so-called PaperPhone is a only a prototype right now, but its creator, Roel Vertegaal, believes the device, and flexible display technologies in general, will become commonplace in the future.

“There have been only three display revolutions,” Vertegaal told PCMag. “The first was CRT, the second was LCD, and the third is flexible displays. When I first got wind of them, I realized they were going to change everything.”

The phone’s display is based on E Ink, the same technology used in ereaders like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook. E Ink displays can easily be made flexible, but usually those screens are built into rigid devices. The researchers at Queen’s Human Media Lab didn’t just settle for a bendable device, though—they took the concept a step further and crafted the PaperPhone so the act of bending is actually a form of input.

“What’s really cool about a book is that you can crack the spine and flip through pages,” says Vertegaal. “You can do something similar with this. With this screen, all you need is to press your thumb slightly downward and it’ll sense it. The Kindle is kind of notoriously hard to navigate beyond one page.”

At this point the PaperPhone needs an external connection to work. But one of the big advantages of E Ink over other types of displays is its power consumption—namely, that there is none, at least not until the screen refreshes. The PaperPhone’s 3.75 thin-film E Ink display is slightly larger than the iPhone’s (which has a 3.5-inch screen). It’s said to be able to do everything a typical smartphone today can do, such as storing ebooks, keeping a list of contacts, playing music, and, oh yeah, making calls. On top of all that, it bends to the shape of your pocket.

“There are some real benefits for having this has your smartphone,” says Vertegaal. “One of the issues with smartphones is that they don’t fit well in your pocket, when you drop them they break, they hold like bricks in your hand, they’re not very lightweight, and most importantly their screen real estate is limited. What’s cool about these screens is that you can unfold them.”

How practical a flexible device will actually be remains to be seen, however. Will consumers respond favorably to a bendable product, or will it be dismissed for just “feeling” cheap? There are concerns about overall durability, too, since such a device could easily be creased if folded too far.

“We haven’t actually tried that—creasing it,” says Vertegaal. “It’s a $7,000 prototype, so we’re pretty careful with it. If you were to put a crease in it, you would break it. But there are engineering solutions for that.”

Regardless, Vertegaal is hugely optimistic about the device’s potential, envisioning a world where most devices adopt some aspect of the technology.

“PaperPhone is only a first instantiation of this bigger picture, and there’s going to be lots more,” he says. “Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years.”

The PaperPhone makes its public debut on May 10 at the Computer Human Interaction conference in Vancouver. Also on display will be the research team’s thin-film wristband computer, the Snaplet.