Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer of Apple Inc., visits the Apple Store in Chicago
INTERNATIONAL - Apple Inc. is working on touchless gesture control and curved screens for future iPhones, projects that may help the company differentiate its most-important product in an increasingly crowded market, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The control feature would let iPhone users perform some tasks by moving their finger close to the screen without actually tapping it. The technology likely won’t be ready for consumers for at least two years, if Apple chooses to go forward with it, a person familiar with the work said.

Apple has long embraced new ways for humans to interact with computers. Co-Founder Steve Jobs popularized the mouse in the early 1980s. Apple’s latest iPhones have a feature called 3D Touch that responds differently depending on different finger pressures. The new gesture technology would take into account the proximity of a finger to the screen, the person said.

Apple is also developing iPhone displays that curve inward gradually from top to bottom, one of the people familiar with the situation said. That’s different than the latest Samsung smartphone screens, which curve down at the edges. So far, every iPhone model has used a flat display. The iPhone X’s OLED screen curves slightly at the bottom, but the shape is mostly invisible to the human eye.

OLED, or organic light emitting diode, displays can be shaped into curves or even folded, unlike the less-flexible LCD screen technology used in prior iPhones. A curved iPhone may be as little as two to three years away, the person said. Apple is also working on new screen technology, known as MicroLED, but that’s at least three to five years away, Bloomberg News reported last month.

Both features are still in the early research and development stage and Apple could choose to not go forward with the enhancements. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

The work comes as the Cupertino, California-based smartphone pioneer looks to make its gadgets stand out. Smartphones have become increasingly similar as Apple, Samsung Electronics Co., Google, and Huawei Technologies Co. adopt features like full screens, advanced cameras, and facial recognition at roughly the same time.

In the fourth quarter, Apple was responsible for about 20 percent of smartphone shipments following the launch of the iPhone X and iPhone 8, beating out second place Samsung and Huawei, according to IDC. To stay ahead, Apple needs compelling new features and designs. Samsung is already working on a foldable smartphone, while Huawei is seeing increased success in Asia.

Samsung launched a feature called Air Gestures several years ago that lets users accept calls and flip through web pages by waving their hand across the top of the phone. Google’s ATAP research group has been working on similar technology through a program known as Project Soli. Apple’s design would require gestures to be closer to the screen than with Project Soli, the person familiar with the situation said. The feature would be based on technology built into the display itself rather than via a motion sensor on the phone’s bezel, like with Samsung’s implementation, the person explained.

While the Apple projects aren’t imminent, the company has near-term plans to expand OLED technology to more devices, according to other people familiar with the matter. It will release a second iPhone with that type of screen later this year; a larger model with a 6.5-inch screen, up from the 5.8-inch size in the current iPhone X. The company is also working on an update to the iPhone X’s size and a new, lower-cost LCD model.

To access adequate OLED supplies for these new devices, Apple is expanding its sourcing from Samsung to also include LG Display, the people said.

- BLOOMBERG