Samsung is working on stretchy OLED screens for future wearable devices.

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Electronic skin technologies are on the verge of becoming a reality.

Foldable screens are still an exotic piece of technology seen exclusively in high-end consumer items, but Samsung is also working on flexible, “free-form” displays. The study is still in its early phases, but it has the potential to enable future wearables and fashion items that we can only imagine 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 screens are presently available in consumer smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold and the Galaxy Z Flip, while other manufacturers such as Royole and Xiaomi are experimenting with form factors that go beyond the usual slab of glass and metal smartphone.

Stretchable screens are still in the early stages of development, and they’ve only featured in a few tech demos throughout the years. However, now that foldable smartphones are reaching select end users and manufacturers are becoming inventive in making them more inexpensive, Samsung’s engineers are devoting more work to making stretchy screens 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”

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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).

The most difficult challenge at this point, according to Samsung, is finding the correct materials and structure to make stretchy screens more trustworthy. One would think the business had learnt a lot from the “Foldgate” problems that plagued early models of their folding gadgets.

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.

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The structure is what makes this proof of concept display stretchy. Samsung built OLED pixels into “islands” composed of an unique substance known as an elastomer and arranged in a grid pattern with fractured metal wires connecting them to a display driver chip. Chemically modifying the elastomer to make it more resistant to heat and some of the materials used in semiconductor manufacturing techniques such as photolithography has received special attention.

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.

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