Additional reporting by Joanna Stern
In a nutshell, the technology involves alternating strips of solar cells overlaid with a lenticular surface; it's not unlike what you find on some glasses-free 3D displays to beam different images to the left and right eyes, except you're beaming sunlight to solar cells and routing the human eye through to the display below. Because the film is applied directly to the screen -- which would lie below the capacitive layer -- there's no effect on touch performance. Clearly, there's some magic involved in making that happen without being optically annoying, and Wysips says they've perfected it over three generations of prototypes.
But is it really perfected? Wysips doesn't have any fully functional phones on hand, but it's got a couple compelling demos: first up is a partially-disassembled device with the top half of the display covered by its patented film, which generated between roughly 1.2 and 2.5 volts under harsh trade show lighting (we thought it might be able to eke some regenerative power from the backlight -- sort of like a hybrid car recharging the battery from the brakes -- but we're told that it soaks up rays strictly from the front, not the back). There was minimal impact to the brightness or clarity of the display, though it was definitely still noticeable -- and it was considerably better than Wysips' other demo, an iPhone 3G with an unconnected solar film placed underneath the glass to demonstrate how it might look in a production device. As you change the angle of the phone, bands of darkness move across the film, which is a pretty common effect in lenticular displays. Fortunately, the company says this is an older-generation prototype -- production devices shouldn't suffer from from that.
Though it's not generating enough power to keep a modern smartphone perpetually charged, it's easy to see how this could extend the battery -- and considering that many of us just barely make it through a weekday before our phones give up the ghost, we'll take whatever help we can get. The company claims 9 percent solar efficiency; that's well under the 40-plus percent of the world's most efficient cells, but not far below the Samsung Blue Earth's efficiency in the low teens (and unlike the Blue Earth, you don't need to set a Wysips-equipped phone face-down to start charging).
The firm's currently in the process of locking up deals with suppliers, phone manufacturers, and carriers, all of whom are apparently excited to get this integrated -- which is a positive sign for retail availability. The first commercial devices are expected to hit next year.