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This flexible phone prototype lets you flick through digital books

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"Users can feel the sensation of the page moving through their fingertips"

Human Media Lab / YouTube

Researchers from Queen's University in Canada have created a flexible smartphone prototype that allows users to navigate pages by bending the screen. The ReFlex is a fully functional Android phone that incorporates a 720p flexible OLED screen from LG. (The company showed off a larger, 18-inch rollable screen at CES this year.) Sensors on the rear of the device combine with vibration and audio feedback to create what researchers are calling "eyes free navigation" — allowing users to essentially feel their way through a document as if it were a physical object.

"When this smartphone is bent down on the right, pages flip through the fingers from right to left, just like they would in a book," said Roel Vertegaal of the university's Human Media Lab in a press release. "More extreme bends speed up the page flips. Users can feel the sensation of the page moving through their fingertips via a detailed vibration of the phone."

The team also applied the technology to gaming, using the device to play Angry Birds. "They bend the screen to stretch the sling shot," explains Vertegaal. "As the rubber band expands, users experience vibrations that simulate those of a real stretching rubber band. When released, the band snaps, sending a jolt through the phone and sending the bird flying across the screen."

It all sounds like an engaging experience, but it's not clear how widely applicable this sort of interface is. After all, the example of flicking through a comic book might look and feel good, but it's not much use when it comes to actually reading the comic. Manufacturers have been experimenting with this sort of flexible interface for years (just look at this Nokia prototype from 2011), and while it does seem that the technology is improving, sorting out exactly when and where it will be useful for consumers is still going to take some work. Vertegaal, though, is confident, predicting that bendable displays will be in consumers' hands in just five years.