If the technology in Apple’s newest patent makes it to a future iPhone or iPad, your mobile devices could have a flexible screen that turns into tactile buttons, a raised keyboard, a microphone, and speakers. Apple’s U.S. patent number 8,816,977 for “Electronic devices with flexible displays,” first spotted by Apple Insider, outlines how flexible screens can be positioned over internal components like microphones, speakers, pressure sensors, or even actuators that create physical changes in the display as users interact with the device.
The patent notes the improvements that the technology would represent, relative to the way that devices are currently built. While input-output components like buttons, microphones, an speakers are effectively placed in port openings formed in the housing or display cover of a device, their placement can be “aesthetically unappealing,” raise the risk of environmental damage from moisture or dirt, and even reduce the amount of active display area.
The display system described in the patent combines a flexible display layer (like an OLED) with a flexible touchscreen layer (a sheet with transparent capacitor electrodes) and a flexible or rigid cover layer. They could also be supported by a structure on the underside of the flexible layers. Because the system is flexible, users can interact with the components through the display. Sound waves from a speaker or vibrations from an actuator could pass through the display, for example. But here’s where it gets interesting: Apple notes that the components beneath the display could actually change the surface of the display as users interact with it.
“Components may receive input or may supply output through a physically deformed portion of the flexible display (e.g., a deformation that occurs when a user presses on the display to compress the component). In some configurations, a portion of the flexible display may serve as a membrane that forms part of a microphone, speaker, pressure sensor, or other electronic component.”