Volume 48, Issue 12- December 2013

Blurred Lines

Glass Becomes a Channel to an Interactive

By Megan headley

Remember when glass was simply a conduit to views of the outdoors and a pathway for natural light? By and large that may still be the case, but manufacturers are developing new ways to turn the glass of today into the interactive devices we mostly relegate to the arena of science fiction.

“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 architectural 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 architectural 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.”

What Makes It Active

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 in niche locations 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, but there are other examples.

Heated glass has been installed for years in plain sight in the refrigerated grocery section of supermarkets, as well as in other, subtler applications. “If you live in a cold climate you don’t want to sit next to the window in the wintertime because your body is emitting heat and it feels like a draft is coming from the window,” Weidner says. “So when you go into the restaurant they have a difficult time sitting people by some of these windows in cold climates.”

Enter heated glass. “[It] has been utilized in a number of restaurants and homes; you drive current onto that surface to elevate the temperature of the glass and turn it into a little radiant heater, so to speak, so that while you’re sitting next to the glass your body’s not emitting energy toward the glass and so you don’t have that chilling effect.”

There also are the instances where glass begins to blend with your day-to-day electronics. Although we’re all becoming used to the sleek glass beneath our fingers as we type out a message on our smartphone, electronics today are appearing in our traditional mirrors and, in some cases, windows.

For example, earlier this year Pilkington North America released MirroView, a new product used to conceal the appearance of television displays and video screens. When turned off, the highly reflective coating reflects a room back to the viewer like any other mirror. When switched on, it’s a high-performing television display.

Companies such as Green Bay, Wis.-based Séura Inc. take that further by integrating the television into a larger mirror so that the viewer can utilize both the reflective and display substrates at once. The company specializes in reflective glass that hides, displays and accentuates TVs.

Séura representatives say their Enhanced Series vanishing TV mirrors use specially formulated glass coatings designed to deliver a “flawless, 100 percent, color-accurate reflection.” The product reproduces a fine-tuned formula of red, green and blue light components, so that reflections never appear discolored or tinted, according to information provided by the company. In addition, color-corrected mirror coatings enhance light transmission for what the manufacturer calls the highest performance of its kind.

Larger applications of “active” glass also exist. “We’re starting to see the development and integration of LED into glass façades,” Weidner says. “If you have a glass building you can essentially turn your façade into a big television screen with the introduction of LED or different types of display technologies.” He says these large-scale applications are especially popular in China and slowly moving around the globe.

Glass You Should Touch

Looking into the future, architectural glass is evolving just the way computer screens have: from “look, don’t touch” to “swipe here.”

In 2012, Samsung introduced what was first called a “smart window;” today it’s the NL22B LED LCD transparent display. According to an article in MIT Technology Review: “The device is really a transparent touch screen LCD that can be fitted to any window, so long as it’s no longer than some 46 inches. Resolution is 1366 by 768 pixels, reportedly. During the day, illumination is provided from outside. At night, built-in lights kick in.” The device reportedly works like a one-way mirror to keep prying eyes from seeing your data streaming. Visitors to the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) were wowed by the applications that appeared on the LCD/window, including a blinds app that closed virtual blinds with the swipe of a finger.

It’s a small start toward architectural glass that demands to be touched. Representatives from Samsung note that today the panel is being mass-produced for a variety of retail display applications such as product showcases, commercial freezer doors and platform doors of subway stations in North America, Europe and Asia.

The company is looking into future applications such as e-boards, information windows, medical equipment, e-signage and mobile devices, as well.

However, representatives are quick to point out that the product isn’t suitable for the home, since the display, at less than 2 millimeters thick, would not provide the security and structural integrity needed for an exterior window.

In addition, reporters who tested the Samsung “window” at the 2012 CES say that the product is somewhat awkward to use long-term, in the respect that few of us want to hold our hand out in front of us to swipe through screens.

Bocko says that making these touch screens more ergonomic should be a first priority. “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.

How Does This 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. It either pulls current out of a device, like in the use of photovoltaics, or we push current into a device, such as a touch screen or displays or lighting or things like that. It’s a whole paradigm shift of thinking about glass, this glass-as-wire concept,” Weidner says.

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.

That happens in a number of ways. Obviously the interaction by sight comes into play not only when a window is a window but when a window is suddenly an LED display or a mirror is switched “on” to become a television. But what about sound and touch?

“It turns out that Corning Gorilla Glass has these acoustic properties that we’ve discovered more or less by accident,” Bocko says. (Gorilla Glass is a Corning product that, because of its strength and thinness, is used on many smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices [see September 2013 USGlass, page 20].) The first one: when Gorilla Glass is incorporated in a laminate, it’s very good for sound deadening. The second one, Bocko says, is that Gorilla Glass has favorable acoustic properties that are differentiated from ordinary window glass and other engineered glasses for audio reproduction and haptics. “A Gorilla Glass touchscreen can be used for both the speaker and provide tactile feedback for the user,” Bocko says. “This is consistent of a trend where the user interface is leveraging more of the human senses than just sight.”

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.

This latter feature of haptics is particularly important in the future Bocko envisions when, for example, automotive interior surfaces become a touch screen. “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] a vivid visual interface while incorporating auditory and mechanical response to create a more profound interactive experience.”

The Future of Glass

Bocko expects products will emerge that can be retrofitted to ordinary glass. But how does glass have to evolve before contract glaziers are installing transparent televisions into the walls of buildings?

“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. “Glass is a remarkable material that can be leveraged in an increasingly interactive environment.” He adds, “If ‘ordinary’ glass works … then you should use ordinary glass.”

Of course, the manufacturers of today’s “ordinary glass” know that glass is anything but ordinary.

Megan Headley is the special projects editor for USGlass magazine. She can be reached at mheadley@glass.com.

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