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Google wants to make your cell phone’s screen disappear

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Reuters/Stephen Lam
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  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

This article is more than 2 years old.

Even with all the obsessive marketing and design awards handed out over the years, most smartphones pretty much look the same. They’re all basically colored rectangles with a smaller black rectangle for a screen on the front. But a new patent awarded to Google suggests the phones of the future might not look like they have screens at all.

In a patent awarded to the company July 14, Google outlined a new process for creating smartphone displays that match the color of the phone itself. Every cellphone on the market today has a screen that looks black when the display is off, but Google’s new idea could match the display color to the body of the phone using an electronically-controlled “color changing layer” that sits between the glass on the phone and the phone’s display. This means if you had a bright green Nokia Lumia or a canary yellow iPhone 5c, the next version of your phone could be one solid block of green or yellow when the display is off. When you turn the display on, it would just look like a regular cellphone screen.

US Patent and Trademark Office
Different screens for when the phone is being used and not.

The patent suggests the system would work a bit like the screen on an e-book reader, where the screen would draw a small amount of power from the battery to change the screen’s color while the phone is in standby mode. The patent also suggests a phone could have color changing layers wrapped around the entirety of the phone, which would allow users to change the color of the whole phone whenever they wanted. Much like the relaunch of the X-Files, these screens could herald a return of late 90s/early 2000s fashion, when swapping faceplates on Nokia 3210s and 3310s was all the rage.

While there’s no guarantee that Google will use this patent in any forthcoming products, it could be a way for the company to help its next versions of Nexus phones stand out from the smartphone pack. Google was not immediately available to comment on its plans for the patent. Perhaps the next Nexus could have one of its typical animated wallpapers that wraps around the whole phone.

This patent could change how we think about cellphone design, when essentially the entire phone is one giant display.Or it could be a bit confusing to consumers, making it something like the Heinz colored ketchup of cell phone design—an amazing feat of engineering that the public just isn’t ready to experience.

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