Glazed & Electrified.

High tech glass becomes an essential interface of the user experience.

What happens when humble glass meets the crucible of technology?

High tech glass, or electrically switchable glass, is already here. The term however, is a little confusing. Not least, because it also extends to transparent plastic - but ‘smart plastic’ doesn’t sound quite as snappy. The current definition of high tech glass stands as a material that can change its light transmission properties when electrified. What does that mean? Well, for example, a driver could allow clear windows while driving, and then darken them for security when leaving the car parked. Soon, intelligent glazing will perform applications that extend far beyond its definition today. In the next few years, glass will become harder than steel, but more flexible than ever. Windshields and windows will be voice-controlled and forged into extraordinary new shapes. But is this attention on glass a fleeting twist of fashion, are we seeing the dawn of the “Glass Age”?

User-controlled glass.

Currently, most electric glass is powered through a process called electrochromism. In this, several thin layers of material are sandwiched between two panes of glass or plastic. One of these layers contains a sheet of nanocrystals - crystals so fine that light can still pass through them. When voltage is applied, the structure of these nanocrystals loosen or densen. This turns the glass from light to dark, and vice versa. Other important switchable glass technologies are polymer dispersed liquid crystal devices (PDLC oder LC) and suspended particle devices (SPD). By 2022, the global market for high tech glass is estimated to reach $7.41 Billion.

Electric glass is already flaunted in luxury transport.

In Japan, an increasing number of trains are now furnished with high tech glass. A main provider of this is AGC, the world’s largest glass company. Indeed, the company’s new WONDERLITE glass is even claimed to block 99% of U.V light - a spectrum of light which can cause skin cancer. Electrically switchable glass glass is also found in our skies. The Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ was rolled out in 2011, and hit the runway with high tech glass installed. Every window seat passenger could adjust the tint to their liking. It was a potent symbol: the clunky, analog ‘pull down’ window shade was replaced with a sleek and illuminated dial. Research frontiers use similar technology to tint glass in passenger cars.

Fashion is bending towards larger screens and windows.

Manufactured glass first began in 1848 with cast plate glass. Molten glass would be spooned over a flat table, trimmed while still hot and then industrially cooled. This method of quickly creating large sheets of glass enabled the construction of the Crystal Palace a few years later. This architectural marvel contained the greatest area of glass ever seen in a building. Glass on this scale was considered an aesthetic of modernity, through the simple but dazzling process of allowing outdoor light to saturate indoor space.

Fast forward to 2017 and it’s possible to recognise similar aesthetic features in our times. There is a palpable shift in trend towards not just bigger windows, but screens too. Less than a decade ago, popular taste favoured smaller and more compact devices. The iPhone 4 was released in 2011 and featured a petite 3.5 inch diagonal screen. But over recent generations, the size of screens has grown dramatically.

The Galaxy S8+, for example, even sacrifices the edges of the phone in order to feature a ‘wrap around’ screen. And the new iPhone X has boldly removed front buttons altogether, replacing them with a 5.8 inch screen. This isn’t a capricious whim of fashion either. People are now spending more time on their phones than laptops. It stands to reason then, that manufacturers should endeavour to make using a smartphone more comfortable. Larger screens offer more information at once, more content formatting options and a better experience watching videos or browsing the internet. This is paralleled in the automotive industry, where the role of glass is shifting from a commodity component to an operable feature - one that is essential to the user experience.

Concentrated research on new and stronger forms of glass have shown promising results. In 2015, academics in Japan discovered a way to add alumina to the glass formula, turning it stronger than most metals. The University of California have taken this a step further. They have treated glass under certain industrial conditions to make it 600 times stronger than steel. If the creation of such glass was economised and adopted by construction industries - like the cast plate method in the 19th century - this material could redefine the architecture of our cities.

The new glass ceilings.

Companies are growing to meet the demand for ever larger and more sophisticated glass surfaces. One such company is AGP eGlass, who design and manufacture state-of-the-art glass solutions across different applications. For passenger cars, they are expanding the limits on traditional window sizes, window shapes and the technological capacities of glass. AGP won international attention by its design for Tesla’s Model X glass. With a size of around three square meters, the panoramic “Big Sky” is probably the largest windshield produced for a passenger car in history. This pane extends up and over the front seats, stopping at roughly where a sunroof would be. This allows for unprecedented wide views. The company also unveiled glass this year that is purportedly three times more resistant than normal glass, while being 35% lighter. Economical benefits like these will only accelerate the uptake of high tech glass into transport and mobility industries. Continental´s Intelligent Glass Control is another example. By keeping the interior of the car cooler, this technology increases passenger comfort while lowering emissions. Indeed, calculations show a reduction in CO2 emissions of four grams per kilometer. Compared to conventional automotive glass, Mercedes-Benz reports that using such electrically switchable glass reduces the temperature inside the car significantly - by up to 10º C. This removes the need for larger and heavier AC units. Continental also estimates that their glass system can increase the cruising range of electric vehicles by 5.5%.

Digital signage allows drivers to transform their stationary cars into billboards.

Israeli company Gauzy develops applications of high tech glass that may create new business models altogether. Their technology allows moving images to be displayed on car windows. Brittany Swisa, Gauzy marketing director, said the following: ‘“Imagine you are walking on a street and you see a line of parked cars with images and commercials on them for events that are going on nearby,” she said.’

Once the engine is turned on, the windows will return to a clear state and the car will be safe to drive. Digital signage would open new opportunities for private car advertising, especially among drivers who would otherwise hesitate to drive a car branded with corporate advertisements.

Gauzy isn’t alone in this market. Corning, best known for providing ‘Gorilla Glass’ - industrially toughened smartphone screens used by Samsung and Apple - is also leaning into the automobile glass sector. They are applying their long experience with glass manufacturing to transform a car into a space-age cockpit. Instead of dials, sticks and buttons, the interior will house contiguous panes of touch-responsive intelligent glass solutions. Strides by companies like Gauzy, Corning, Airbus and AGP eGlass form part of a wider movement. Glazing is increasingly becoming a protagonist in product, HMI and UX design, especially in the automotive sector.

A glazed future.

As this promotional video from Corning shows, the applications are as useful as they are diverse. A blank surface in the kitchen could be activated to display videos, edit notes and even conduct heat to cook on. These could also link to personal mobile technology or the cloud via the Internet of Things mega-concept. Moving from room to room with uninterrupted connection would provide a level of interconnectivity which is difficult to imagine.

Let’s return to the times of the Crystal Palace and look back at the wildly inaccurate depictions of the future they had. Their imagination was an artistic elaboration of their surroundings - clunky, roboticized contraptions, brass levers and carnival-esque flying suits. But with its timeless and elegant beauty, glass makes sense as a medium for modernity.

Future gazing is always a risky endeavour, but glass is redefining our relationship with technology. As windows and screens get bigger and bigger, as will the size and ambition of companies serving them. This will tempt inventions that slowly push us into the future, creating possibilities which were once the terrain of sci-fi films. Acclaimed materials expert Chris Lefteri expressed this beautifully in the following: “The future belongs to glass. At the sweet spot between the physical and the digital worlds is where glass is fulfilling its duty. Glass is at the backbone of the digital age, silently and quietly.”

Authors: Christian Geiss and Neelesh Vasistha