When looking at an older smartphone, its limited screen size often comes as a surprise.
In the 1980s, mobile phones had no screen at all. Then a two-line monochrome display was added, to show incoming call numbers and improve dialling accuracy.
These evolved into compact monochrome screens, which then gained colour. And expanded. And expanded even further.
Today’s handsets are dominated by swathes of glass, behind which crystal-clear widescreen displays offer pixel quality that would shame some TV sets.
Meanwhile, those wraparound plastic bezels holding the screen in place have dwindled to wafer-thin proportions.
And in a couple of years’ time, advances in the way smartphone manufacturers package their front-facing cameras might mean bezels are abolished entirely…
Under and over it
One of the factors limiting screen size to date has been our penchant for taking selfies.
Our vanity has forced manufacturers to incorporate front-facing cameras on almost every handset, which has inevitably reduced available display space.
Manufacturers have generally positioned selfie cameras above device screens, necessitating a moderately thick bezel to accommodate the lens.
However, smartphone makers are now engaged in an arms race to see who can be first to bring underscreen cameras to market.
As the name suggests, underscreen cameras are embedded beneath the same material used to display on-screen content.
When the screen is illuminated, the camera effectively becomes invisible. Conversely, when the camera is activated, the display becomes transparent and doesn’t reflect light.
Indeed, the screen acts as a protective cover over the lens.
How far away is this technology?
Manufacturers are desperate to bring full-screen smartphones to market, with every traditional element of front-facing hardware hidden from view or repositioned.
This includes an earpiece, speakers, fingerprint readers – and of course underscreen cameras.
Samsung has been working on what it calls a “perfect full screen” device for some time, and LG has filed a patent in South Korea for a hidden cut-out housing camera lenses and sensors.
Chinese brand Oppo has showcased a handset with an invisible camera, though its CEO did issue a note of caution about image quality being inferior to ‘exposed’ selfie cameras.
Oppo’s compatriot brand Xiaomi has patented a slightly different way to make the screen seem transparent from below.
This would enable it to incorporate a 20 megapixel selfie camera into its handsets, with the next-generation Mi Mix rumoured to be the first device which will offer this technology.
Does any of this really matter?
It does, for the simple reason that screen size and quality have evolved into frontlines in the technological battle for hearts and minds.
A full-screen display would undoubtedly look stunning, and it’d be especially well-suited to online gaming or streaming video clips over 5G.
As our phones evolve into full-blown multimedia centres, the race to eliminate bezels and other front-facing real estate is heating up.