Volume 16, Issue 1 - January/February 2014

Blurred Lines

Automotive Glass as an Interactive Experience
By Megan Headley and Jenna Reed

Manufacturers are developing new ways to turn the glass of today into the interactive devices we mostly relegate to the arena of science fiction. Many of the breakthroughs are being offered on the architectural glass side, but many of these could soon carry over into automotive glass as well.

“It is a trend,” says Peter Bocko, glass technologies CTO for Corning Inc. in Corning, N.Y., of this movement toward active and, in some cases, interactive glass. “At this point, I’d say we’re focusing on creative collaborations with people who say ‘how is this going to fit in what we call ‘environmental display?’”

While glass products have been in demand for some time by the electronics industry (think touch screen), the electronics are moving into other applications.

“We’ve been involved in the electronics industry for quite some time and there are myriad glass products,” adds Stephen Weidner, vice president at NSG Pilkington. Those include touch screens and other elements that Weidner points out are integral to the electronic application. “We’re definitely seeing a blurring of the lines,” he says. “I certainly see a growing trend toward using more and more glass in these new electronic types of applications, whether they’re touch screens or interior or exterior or displays.”

Bocko says that making these touch screens more ergonomic should be a first priority, especially for use in vehicles.

“One of the things that I think is exciting is making the interactive display conform to the environment instead of having to conform the environment to it,” he says.

He adds, “Some of the abilities we’re looking at is glass that is more ergonomic. An area of early adoption where we’re going to see that—and it’s still a few years away—is in the automotive area.”

He says that touch screens will be a common addition to windshields of the future.

“Ideally there are no flat surfaces on cars,” Bocko says. “Flat touch screens that are used for driver/vehicle interactivity today are going to be curved as they become larger in the future and integrate more functionality. This makes them more ergonomic and safer, providing a uniform depth of focus of content for the user.”

How Does This Futuristic Glass Work?
The first key to understanding this trend toward active glass is to stop thinking of glass as glass. Make sense so far?

As Weidner explains, “We don’t make glass, we actually make a wire: a flat transparent wire.”

The company’s transparent electrically conductive (TEC) product range encompasses a number of products, but the technology is fairly standard, or so Weidner makes it sound. “We put very thin films of different metal oxides on the surface of the glass and really transform that into a wire, just like the back of your computer or something you hook your iPhone up to. Instead of being a little round bundle of copper, the wire that we make is flat and it’s transparent, but it conducts electricity.

For Bocko, glass has to be a conduit for more than just electricity. “People need to interact with displays not only through sight but also by touch and by sound,” he says.

The concept of haptics explains how touch comes into play.

Also known as “touch feedback,” haptics is “the use of the sense of touch in a user interface design to provide information to an end user,” as mobileburn.com explains it. You might have encountered this on your mobile phone, when you push a touch screen button and feel a slight vibration that gives the sensation of having touched an actual button.

Haptics is particularly important to the future in the automotive marketplace because automotive interior surfaces can become a touch screen, as Bocko envisions.

“You’re trying to drive and press on a touch screen—physical feedback lets you know that you’ve done something without looking at the screen and being distracted. Haptics will be increasingly important for personal and public displays as well,” he adds.

Bocko continues, “The potential of thin engineered glass is [that of] a vivid visual interface while incorporating auditory and mechanical response to create a more profound interactive experience.”

Ultimately, Bocko expects products will emerge that can be retrofitted to ordinary glass to transform the way we think about transparency. But how does glass have to evolve before, say, it is used in less traditional ways in vehicles?

“The ability to master all of the sensory inputs for emerging interactive environmental displays is going to be central to the movement beyond ordinary plate glass to engineered glass as an environmental material in automotive and architectural applications,” Bocko says.

Active glass, interactive displays, environmental displays—whatever term you prefer to use to describe a vast number of glass applications that “do something”—have been popping up for some years now. Switchable glazing, which in some cases uses an electric current to turn glass from transparent to opaque, has been a popular face for this trend in the automotive sector. And one of the big products now hitting the marketplace is suspended particle device (SPD) switchable glass.

Mercedes-Benz recently unveiled its new S-Class Coupe concept at the Frankfurt Auto Show, which features a large panoramic sunroof with Research Frontiers’ SPD-SmartGlass technology.

“With the touch of a button, drivers and passengers can instantly change the tint of their roof to help keep out harsh sunlight and heat and create an open-air feeling even when the sunroof is closed,” officials explained.

Mercedes-Benz officials have dubbed the sunroof the “magic sky control.”

So how does it work? An SPD film is enclosed between thin layers of glass or plastic. Within this film are microscopic particles.

High Voltage

“When no electrical voltage is present, the particles absorb light and block it from passing through the film. When an electrical voltage is applied, the particles align so that light can pass through. Adjusting the voltage to the film provides a range of transparencies (i.e. very dark to fully clear) where light transmission can be rapidly varied to any degree desired depending upon preference or pre-programmed requirements,” according to the company.

Another company working on switchable glass is Guardian Automotive.

“Guardian, through its R&D efforts has decided to go a different route as more of a film-based technology based off liquid crystals [for switchable glass],” explains David Kaufman, Guardian Automotive’s vice president of sales and program management.

“We can demonstrate that particle device liquid crystals (PDLC) has a superior durability to SPD under extreme climates.”

Kaufman also says the product’s response times are quick.

“And last, we feel we have a cost effective product that is going to enable our customers to bring our product to a production solution very soon,” he says.

In another new twist, LEDs are being embedded in glass, according to Matt Eder, a spokesperson for Guardian Automotive.

“We have developed methods of embedding LEDs into our laminated glass. Exterior applications could include turn signals, center-high mount stop lamps (CHMSL) and flashers on emergency vehicles. In one instance, the LEDs are used as turn signals, emergency flashers and vehicle identification. We have also developed methods of diffusing the light from the LEDs, which creates unique, ambient lighting options for the interior of a vehicle.”

Glass sensors are expected to play a larger role going forward, according to Brian Bauer, vice president of sales for Pittsburgh Glass Works.

“More sensors are being employed for rain, light, infra red cameras and vision cameras,” he points out.

Don Michelotti, executive vice president of Carlex, agrees, saying, “Glass has become an integral part of the vehicles information system for improved driver safety. The implementation of high bean cameras, lane departure cameras and heads up display in the windshield are not uncommon in today’s leading vehicles.

The many uses of glass in vehicles appear endless. Interactive glass and color-changing sidelites just touch the surface of what is possible.

Megan Headley is special projects editor for USGlass magazine, a sister publication to AGRR™ magazine. She can be reached at mheadley@glass.com.

Jenna Reed is the editor of AGRR™ magazine/glassBYTEs.com™. Follow her on LinkedIn at Jenna Reed, follow her on Twitter @agrrmagazine and like AGRR magazine on Facebook to receive the latest updates.

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