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Wild folding phone concepts look straight out of sci-fi…but could be the high-tech future

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Mar 5, 2020, 5:23 PM EST

Today’s tablets and smart phones aren’t quite advanced enough to look like they belong in science fiction lore like The Expanse’s cool see-through hand terminals or Minority Report’s translucent E-newspapers. But hey — we’re getting there. Tech giants like Apple already have lapped Dick Tracy’s wrist radio with the current generation of wearable tech. And if a new breed of prototypes from TCL grow beyond their concept status, we’ll even be closing in fast on Spock’s Star Trek Tricorder.

Known mostly for making televisions, the Chinese electronics company recently showed off a pair of futuristic handheld concepts to the geek press, and those in attendance came away gushing with comparisons to science fiction. One of the gadgets, a tri-fold tablet that surpasses similar folding phones already in production with not one but two glass “hinges,” left people impressed enough. But it was TCL’s other device, a gadget whose glass screen can literally roll outward to expand in size, that really had observers’ eyes dancing with visions of the future.

Check out a pair of hands-on demos from The Verge and Android Authority that show each prototype in action:

The tri-fold device can be used in all three screen permutations, from single-screen to double-screen to its fully-unfurled final form, which flips like an accordion to a maximum screen size of 10 inches. The roll-up gadget, meanwhile, contains a flexible display that wraps and tucks away out of sight, like a roll-up garage door, inside the phone. At the push of a button, a motor comes to life, unfurling the screen as you watch it widen before your eyes. Sadly, TCL reportedly showed the roll-up phone only over video taken of its working prototype in China, and offered only a mock-up model for reporters’ hands-on inspection. 

It’s obvious that for now, these are simply stripped-down prototypes; proofs of concept described by PC World’s Michael Simon — one of several reporters who got up close with the devices — as “basically movie props with few working parts.” But the flipping and rolling form factors already appear to show what’s possible, and Simon’s takeaway — that they’re “intriguing” innovations that could make current folding-glass phones “look like old news” — was one echoed by nearly every media outlet that witnessed the TCL prototypes in action

Sure, gadgets like these may not warp us far enough into the future to get us closer to Harry Potter’s magic newspapers or Iron Man’s gesture-based computing controls. But even as prototypes, we’re growing more confident that we're reaching to point when real, Earthbound mobile devices could make Luke Skywalker drop his lowly comlink and force him to sidle over to ask, “what’s that?”

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