The smartphones in our hands, the tablets on our laps, the computers on our desks and the televisions on our walls. We live in a blocky world of glowing glass rectangles. But yesterday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, industrial glassmaker Corning announced an innovation that may finally end the rectangle's domination over gadgets, and usher in the era of the organically curved and super-resistant devices of the future.
You may have never heard of Gorilla Glass, but chances are that if you have a smartphone or tablet, you touch it on a daily basis. It is the glass that almost all smartphone and tablet screens have been made from, ever since Steve Jobs put pressure on Corning to dust off a Cold War era glass technology and get it ready to protect the screen of the original iPhone (all in an unprecedented six-week production crunch). Corning managed to just make the Apple CEO's rigorous deadline, which positioned them to become the de facto glass provider for every device that followed.
An ultra-thin, incredibly strong and scratch resistant glass substrate, Gorilla was originally created in the 1960s after Corning engineers discovered a method of reinforcing glass by dousing it in baths of hot potassium salt. The resulting glass was more than 14 times stronger than normal glass, and Corning's engineers were soon hurling tumblers made of the stuff off of nine-story buildings and bombarding it with frozen chickens.
Gorilla Glass is pretty great stuff. Although it shatters more easily than plastic, it's also more resistant to scratches, chips, and punctures. In addition, Gorilla Glass has what Marc Newson or Jony Ive might call a "material integrity" lacking in plastic: when bonded with a plastic display panel, as in the iPhone or iPad, Gorilla Glass makes a gadget feel more substantial, coherent, and luxurious. As anyone who has ever accidentally dropped their smartphones one too many times can attest, Gorilla Glass doesn't make gadget screens unbreakable but it does make them significantly less prone to accidental damage. Yet until now, it's only really come one way: flat.
The new Gorilla Glass, which will be ready for mass-production in the later part of 2014, finally brings Corning's game to three dimensions. The production technique behind 3-D shaped Gorilla Glass allows for glass that can bend as much as 75 to 80 degrees without breaking, as well as be molded into dramatic new shapes. And that's a big deal, because it heralds the end of the age of the rectangle.
Thanks to the rise of flexible display panels, over the past year or so, gadget makers have increasingly been experimenting with slightly convex devices, like LG and Samsung's curved smartphones. Although these devices have a lot of first-to-market flaws, they are not gimmicks: a concave screen makes a mobile device more readable in ambient light, less likely to capture reflections, improve battery life by about 5% and slightly magnify the screen so it's easier to read. For more information on the benefits of curved displays, read this excellent article.
But curved smartphones and tablets are just the start. If you think about it, when it comes to consumer electronics, every design decision has ultimately been subservient to a single geometric limitation. If a device has a screen, it must accommodate at least one two-dimensional rectangle. The result is that all of us—designers and consumers alike—have lived the better part of a decade in Flatland.
Corning's announcement today may change all of that. Although Corning sold a slightly curved version of Gorilla Glass called Willow to LG and Samsung to make their convex smartphones, the devices were still just slightly bowed rectangles. Corning's new 3-D printed Gorilla Glass, on the other hand, is flexible and amorphous enough to empower designers to finally create resilient devices that are as organically shaped as we are. In fact, as we've previously discussed, Apple has already redesigned iOS 7 with curved displays in mind.
What does that mean? Yes, it means curved iPhones (and, in fact, Corning's 3-D printed Gorilla Glass manufacturing schedule perfectly lines itself up with an iPhone 6 launch in September later this year, which was already strongly rumored to be a curved device). Yes, it means an iWatch with a wrap-around curved display, as the New York Times has similarly reported Apple to be working on for release this year.
But in the future, it also means an entire galaxy of new types of gadgets that haven't even been conceived of yet. Imagine an in-car display that ripples and wraps itself across your dashboard, or some sort of super-charged Magic Eightball that is simply a sphere with a 360-degree display. These gadgets are still a ways off, but the likes of Corning, Apple, Samsung, and LG are skating to where the puck is going. In 20 years, you won't be able to believe that the world of gadgets was once so boxy.