Long before Korean electronics giants LG and Samsung rolled out smartphones with curved displays in the form of the G Flex and Galaxy Round, the team from the Human Media Lab at Canada's Queen's University created the Paperphone, a fully-functioning flexible smartphone prototype featuring a thin film E-Ink display. This was followed by the PaperTab tablet and MorePhone smartphone prototypes. Now the foldable PaperFold smartphone has joined the fold.

Described as a multi-display, shape-changing smartphone, the PaperFold allows up to three separate E-Ink displays to be combined into various shapes to support different functions and provide extra screen real estate when required. Unlike traditional smartphone displays that require content that doesn't fit on a single screen to be scrolled or zoomed, the PaperFold creators took inspiration from paper, which can be folded, detached or combined to view different parts of a document.

"The development of electronic paper computers that can adopt similar qualities to paper has been an enduring research goal for our team," says Dr. Roel Vertegaal, a Queen's professor and Director of the Human Media Lab. "Books use folding as both a navigational and space saving technique, and paper maps have malleable display sizes. The PaperFold smartphone adopts folding techniques that makes paper so versatile, and employs them to change views or functionality of a smartphone, as well as alter its screen real estate in a flexible manner. PaperFold demonstrates how form could equal function in malleable mobile devices."

The device's magnetic hinges are able to recognize when and where displays have been added or removed and dynamically alter the content being displayed. For example, when a user is viewing image thumbnails on a lone display, the connection of a second display will display the selected image in full screen. An image toolbar will then be displayed on a third display when connected. Also, when two displays are configured in an ultra notebook configuration, the bottom display can be used as a keyboard.

Additionally, when displaying Google Maps, the map can be displayed over three displays when folded flat like a paper map. By folding the map into a convex globe shape, the view dynamically switches to Google Earth view. Further folding so that the shape of the device resembles that of a building on the map switches the view to a 3D SketchUp model of the displayed building ready to be sent to a 3D printer.

"In PaperFold, each display tile can act independently or as part of a single system," says Dr. Vertegaal. "It allows multiple device form factors, providing support for mobile tasks that require large screen real estate or keyboards on demand, while retaining an ultra-compact, ultra-thin and lightweight form factor."

Dr. Vertegaal and Antonio Gomes are "unfolding" the PaperFold at the ACM CHI 2014 conference that is currently underway in Toronto.

The PaperFold prototype can be seen in action in the video below.

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