Windows Phone: Why Microsoft built this E Ink second screen for its Lumia 640

Sadly, you'll probably never get to buy one of these handy, second-display Windows 10 Mobile covers.

If Microsoft hadn't called it quits on Windows Phone, the company might have developed its newly revealed prototype phone cover with a secondary low-power E Ink display.

The cover is the work of a team at Microsoft Research in the UK, which revealed the display cover at a conference this month on ubiquitous computing.

While Apple's and Google's recent updates encourage users to spend less time looking at their phones, Microsoft's found that users "want a larger, always-on screen".

Microsoft's answer to this problem is a second-screen prototype in the form of a 3mm thick Alcantara cover with an E Ink display that runs off a Lumia 640 smartphone.

As to why Microsoft Research is using the three-year-old Lumia 640, the company was actually carrying out research into secondary displays back in 2015, the year the Lumia 640 was released.

To save time, the researchers didn't bother adding a touch overlay to the E Ink cover, but rather included five touch 'buttons' at the bottom of the display.

"The touch buttons and display connect to interface circuitry added to the rear of the phone -- a Lumia 640 -- via flat-flex cables which run through the flip cover 'hinge' along with a bend sensor," the researchers explain.

"The cover itself consists of a bezel of soft-touch fabric, which is heat-bonded to the display and to the rear surface of Alcantara using custom-made heated tooling. To reduce cost and lead time we 3D-printed this tooling in stainless steel at Shapeways."

SEE: How to optimize the smart office (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

The E Ink cover was motivated by the results of interviews where people reported wanting quicker and easier ways to access information stored on their phones. Interestingly, given the trend towards larger display phones, people reported not wanting a physically larger phone.

The five buttons on the E Ink display allow users to press and hold a button to pin screens to the display. Users can then save different items like an air ticket, a to-do list, the weather, or even Cortana to the various screens.

The researchers also detail ideas that weren't supported by a non-touch E Ink screen for dual-screen actions, such as using the E Ink display to research online while writing on the main screen, using the E Ink display as a keyboard, or editing a document across two screens.

"The users we worked with during this project were genuinely surprised to learn that a display could be integrated in such a thin form factor and without materially affecting battery life," the researchers note.

"Despite the limitations of our basic 'screen shot' experience and the lack of full screen touch interaction, anecdotal evidence from our user trials showed the value of easy access to previously stored information such as electronic boarding passes, train timetables and shopping lists."

Other contributors to the project were from Porsche, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Northumbria University, and Oxford University.

windowsphoneeinkcovera.jpg

Microsoft was carrying out research into secondary displays back in 2015, the year the Lumia 640 was released.

Image: Microsoft

Previous and related coverage

Windows 10 Mobile's last gasp? Wileyfox revives its dead Windows 10 phone

Back by popular demand, apparently, and the Wileyfox Pro now costs around $100, down from $260.

Windows Surface Phone? New Andromeda clues spotted in Microsoft language packs

Is Microsoft still secretly working on Andromeda after all?

Windows 10 Mobile? No new features but a new phone: Wileyfox Pro is out December 4

At least the new $250 handset will be getting security updates from Microsoft.

Windows 10 Mobile: Microsoft just put the final nail in the coffin

Microsoft finally confirms that Windows Phone won't get more features or phones.

Windows 10 Mobile dead? These two new phones suggest it's not quite curtains

Pair of new Windows 10 Mobile phones emerge from TrekStor and Wileyfox.

Huawei developing own mobile OS in case it gets banned from using Android TechRepublic

Reports indicates that in-house OS development started in 2012, though many other companies have failed to create a third major mobile OS option.

RIP Windows Phone: Microsoft admits Windows 10 Mobile is dead CNET

The head of Microsoft's Windows division says there will be no more new features or hardware for Windows 10 Mobile.