It’s only a prototype, but FlexEnable’s wrist-hugging vision of a smartwatch has got me feeling ever so slightly optimistic about one of the worst gadgets of them all. I played with the Cambridge-firm’s creation at MWC this morning, and though it’s a looooong way away from being a finished product, it’s reassuring to see a dramatically different alternative to the current versions of the Apple Watch, LG Watch Urbane (and other such monstrosities) on the market right now. could and should be dramatically overhauled in the next couple of years.
The firm’s pushing super-flexible LCD displays, which can wrap around your wrist to form something that looks a lot like the the device pictured in those ‘iWatch leaks’ a couple of years back. Dr Vincent Barlier, the company’s senior business development engineer, tells me these plastic displays are cheap to make, and that he’s currently working with a number of device manufacturers (unnamed, of course) to bring proper, bendy gadgets to market.
As you can guess from looking at the size of its prototype smartwatch, FlexEnable isn’t a product specialist. Though its creation’s 4.7-inch display is massive and crying out to be prodded and swiped, it unfortunately isn’t touch-sensitive, though Barlier tells me that integrating a flexible touchscreen is a straightforward process that’s already been done by a pair of firms called PopSlate and Plastic Logic.
Within 18 months, FlexEnable expects its product to feature in wearables, mobile phones and car displays, though I’m mainly interested in how Barnier thinks flexible touchscreens could shape the future of smartwatches. As things stand, smartwatches are still solutions looking for problems. They’re expensive, extremely limited and, more-often-than-not, poorly-designed.
“The smartwatch’s only limitations are size and form factor,” Barnier says. “The Apple Watch screen is too small. If you increase its size, it could become a primary device. There’s no fundamental reason that can’t happen.”
At this point, I’m genuinely frustrated that the sample on show isn’t touch-sensitive. Though it’s clearly oversized, it’s oddly attractive and incredibly comfortable, thanks to a wide, elastic strap. Though I managed to drop it on the floor at one point (butter fingers), it suffered zero damage, which I was both impressed with and incredibly relieved about.
As you can see from the images above, colours look a little dull and glare is a slight issue, but in my time with it animations were smooth and text -- whole lines of the stuff, rather than snippets followed by an ellipsis -- was clear enough to read without leaning in ridiculously close. Further work is obviously required, but this is promising.
Is this the future of the smartwatch? I'm not sure, but FlexEnable's vision is well worth exploring. Smartwatches as we know them need to change sharpish, and flexibility and increased screen sizes represent a couple of steps in the right direction.