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Apple bags patent for folding phone that closes as it's dropped

You've gotta protect those butter-soft OLED screens somehow

If you're one of the small subset of Apple aficionados waiting to get their hands on a folding iDevice, a patent for self-folding displays granted to Cook and Co last week is sure to pique your interest.

According to a patent [PDF] published on March 16, Apple hasn't just considered a foldable – it's considering a foldable that can detect when it's in freefall or been thrown upwards and then fold itself to protect its fragile screen.

Per Apple's patent, the autofolding hardware could work in several ways, the most basic among them being a spring-loaded mechanical hinge that disengages to only partially close the phone "to an angle less than [than] 180 degrees," keeping most of the screen off the surface if it hits display down. 

Apple said a production device with the technology could differ in several ways, like using a motorized hinge instead of a mechanical one, possibly with magnetic components, and allowing the device to fully close depending on drop height.

In order to detect a potentially damaging drop or toss, Apple said the phone's accelerometer can be used, but noted that additional software would be needed to prevent the device from snapping shut, say, during a flight  or in a fast-moving car.

"A sensor in the device senses the acceleration of the device. If the acceleration of the device exceeds a predetermined threshold, protective features are engaged to protect the display," Apple says in the patent, adding that "the features will only be triggered in free-fall acceleration or vertical acceleration." 

Fantastic folding phones?

This isn't the first time that Apple is said to be working on a folding device. Previous industry talk pointed to Apple launching a folding iPad as Samsung has saturated the folding smartphone market, with most recent indications pointing to such a device launching in 2024

Of course, patents do not a final product make: As Apple invention site Patently Apple pointed out, Apple has filed some 88 patents related to possible folding, scrollable or flexible devices in recent years, but not a single one has appeared on shelves. This latest patent includes another screen innovation in the form of a retractable screen that spools itself inside the device, and which can do so in response to a drop or toss, too.

Regardless of whether Apple actually launches a folding phone or tablet in the next year or two, there's still the problem of screen strength and the addition of failure points to contend with.

Samsung has had a number of problems with its folding devices since launching them in 2019. Both the hinges and screens on Samsung folding devices have been notoriously difficult to keep clean and free of scratches and scores.

In their newer generations of Folds and Flips, Samsung claims to have addressed earlier problems, but recent tests have shown the fourth generation, released mid-2022, to have similar woes, with iFixit reporting the hinges still had reliability issues, and others pointing out that the screen could still be scratched with relative ease (at just 2 on the Mohs hardness scale) compared to, say, an actual glass screen. 

Apple's patent indicates its folding devices would use organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) for its display, similar to what Samsung uses in its folding devices. OLED screens are preferred for these applications because they don't require a backlight and can be made much thinner than traditional LED displays. Conversely, OLED screens must be kept completely sealed from outside debris, which can disturb or destroy them. In other words, far more flexible, but tough to protect.

We've asked the iMaker to comment on its latest patent. ®

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