Smart ovens are now a thing, as are intelligent beds, connected doorbells, and internet-enabled fridges. Everything, it seems, is now “smart” and “connected” — and soon the windows in your home or office could be hit with the smart stick too.
There has been a flurry of activity in the smart glass realm over the past few months, and two Californian companies in particular are knuckling down to bring self-tinting windows to companies and residencies en masse.
Last week, San Francisco-based Kinestral Technologies (“Kinestral”) announced the inaugural installation of its Halio electrochromic smart-tinting glass at the San Francisco offices of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a real estate investment trust. Halio is touted as “the most responsive smart-tinting glass on the market,” according to the company’s own marketing blurb, with an innate ability to switch from clear to dark in seconds, delivering its darkest tint in less than 3 minutes.
It basically negates the need for blinds or curtains, as the glass automatically dims and brightens to suit the outdoors light conditions — this is useful in controlling a room’s ambience and temperature, while also reducing a building’s energy needs. Users can also manually control the tint settings through wall switches, mobile apps, and if recent tests go according to plan, your voice. Yes, Kinestral wants to integrate Amazon’s Alexa voice-activated technology into its smart windows.
The glass isn’t designed purely for use on exterior facades, though. It can be used anywhere inside a building so that light from one room can travel through to other rooms when required, or be (partially) blocked if the situation requires it. For example, Kinestral replaced the existing glass in a central skylight above the employee lounge at Alexandria’s San Francisco hub, while Halio was also added to two meeting rooms, creating glass walls that served as opaque partitions when needed — to improve the clarity of a wall-mounted LCD TV, for example, or simply to create more privacy. The windows can be undimmed whenever light or visibility is needed.
“We see applications for Kinestral’s Halio smart-tinting glass in both interior and exterior glazing locations,” explained Greg Gehlen, senior vice president of construction and development at Alexandria. “In exterior locations, the glass can limit glare in the dark state without blinds while allowing clear vision in the clear state. In interior locations, we are using this for variable privacy in conference rooms.”
Kinestral has raised almost $100 million in funding since its inception back in 2010, the biggest chunk of which came via a $65 million round just a few months back. But seven years is a long time from inception to product launch, so what’s been going on behind the scenes?
“Our founders were determined to solve the challenges of electrochromic glass,” explained Craig Henricksen, marketing VP at Kinestral, in an interview with VentureBeat. “They were not going to go out with a product that was only incrementally better. Solving the color issues, the tinting speed, and uniformity during tinting was extremely important to them. It took dozens of scientists to solve the problems, and fine-tune the chemistry and processes to make a product viable.”
And so after years of development and iteration, over the past couple of years Kinestral has built a production facility in Hayward, California, while back in March Kinestral inked a $100 million deal with Foxconn subsidiary G-Tech Optoelectronics Corporation (GTOC) to convert an existing LCD touch panel manufacturing facility in Taiwan to produce Halio at scale.
Also based out of California is a more established smart glass player called View, which was founded in 2007 and has raised a gargantuan $550 million in funding across a number of big rounds, including $100 million back in February.
View’s glass-tinting smarts adopts a model-based control system that uses algorithms to automatically adjust tint levels based on a number of factors, including a building’s location, design, layout, orientation, time of day, and even the weather conditions outside, explained Erich Klawuhn, View’s VP of product, in an interview with VentureBeat. “Light sensors and real-time weather feeds inform the system of current and upcoming weather conditions, including cloud cover, and adjusts the tint levels accordingly,” he said. “Via a small electrical voltage, View Dynamic Glass transitions seamlessly between multiple tint states either automatically or by personal preferences programmed through tablet or smartphone apps.”
View says that over the past year it has doubled the number of installations of its electrochromic Dynamic Glass, which is made of the same kind of material as Kinestral’s. View now counts more than 300 complete commercial installations with another 150 in the works, and it was enlisted to retrofit Netflix’s new Los Gatos offices with self-tinting glass.
“Our mission is to create delightful human environments, free of glare and unwanted heat,” added Klawuhn. “By providing the right amount of natural light and optimizing the views of nature, View Dynamic Glass enhances the productivity and wellness of building occupants, as well as providing sustainability for the planet.”
Through the looking glass
The concept behind smart glass is nothing new, and there have been various versions of the technology over the years, some less smart than others. Thermochromic glass essentially uses the heat from sunlight to tint the windows — the hotter it is, the darker the room becomes, allowing properties to regulate their own heat. But everything is automatic and there is no manual control.
Then there are liquid crystal windows, which use technology similar to that found in many digital wristwatches. A thin layer of liquid crystals is positioned in between two transparent electrical conductors on plastic films, which in turn is sandwiched between two layers of glass. The collective term for this kind of technology is PDLC, or “polymer dispersed liquid crystal,” and it uses electrical voltage to control the transparency — however, a constant power supply is required for completely transparency, else the glass turns translucent. The level of translucence depends on the voltage applied, and the technology is largely used to enhance privacy indoors, for example in conference rooms or on shower doors.
Then there’s electrochromic (EC) glass, like what View and Kinestral are pushing to market, which changes state when it’s exposed to an electrical charge. There are a number of advances to EC smart glass, for example it’s more durable, the level of “tint” can be manually controlled, and power is only required during its transition between shades.
One of the first major entrants to the EC smart glass market was a company called Sage Electrochomics, which was acquired by French building giant Saint-Gobain back in 2012, and then there’s also Gentex, which launched self-dimming rearview mirrors for the automotive industry way back in the 1980s that alter based on the lighting conditions. In the years since, Gentex has branched out into other verticals, including aerospace, where it has partnered with PPG Aerospace to replace those hard-plastic pull-down shades on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Gentex’s dimmable window system, marketed as “Alteos Interactive Window Systems,” gives flight attendants and passengers more control over their lighting simply through pressing a button.
As a company publicly traded since 1981, Gentex shares are currently riding on the crest of a wave, steadily climbing from a then record-high of just over $8 in 2014 to an all-time high of almost $22 last month — the company’s share value hasn’t fallen below the $20 mark in four months. Business is looking good for Gentex.
The best time to consider installing smart glass is during a building’s construction; however, retrofitting an existing building is perfectly doable. As we saw with View’s recent Netflix work, it just needs a little more effort given that each window requires a wire to be run into the wall or through the ceiling. Kinestral, however, is focusing on new constructions in the short term. “[It’s] mainly because it allows us to work directly with architects and general contractors to optimize the overall system design from scratch, but we see the retrofit market as an important long-term focus,” said Henricksen.
The application of electrochromic smart glass in business environments is an obvious one, given that many modern office blocks are constructed nearly entirely of glass. With hundreds or thousands of people working all day and often into the evening, optimizing indoor light and temperatures organically, as opposed to relying on expensive air conditioning or electric lights, could save companies big bucks in the long term.
But away from corporate facades, View already has a large roster of clients from other areas using its smart window technology, including the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, South Irving Library in Texas, NASA’s Sustainability Base in Mountain View, Humber River Hospital in Toronto, and a bunch of other facilities including schools, universities, and government buildings.
While the less smart thermochromic windows are already being used in residential buildings, how close are we to seeing electrochromic glass installed domestically? Well, according to View, it’s already happening.
“As dynamic glass continues to achieve mainstream adoption, its use is beginning to gain traction in residential real estate as well, especially in the construction of high-rise multifamily projects,” explained Klawuhn. “Whether at work or home, more and more people are realizing that the benefits of productivity, wellness and sustainability from dynamic glass are everywhere. View has completed multiple multifamily (high- and low-rises) [installations], and has several residential projects in progress.”
Commercial buildings may still be the main market for EC glass for now, but we’re seeing a steady shift toward smart glass adoption within the residential realm. And this is something Kinestral hopes to capitalize on in the future too.
“Those who have been in this market have focused on commercial buildings because they tend to be larger scale projects,” continued Henricksen. “We are certainly targeting those as well, but from the start, we always had residential installations in mind because Halio is so beautiful and easy to use. Maybe it’s timing, but everyone who sees Halio in person tells us about rooms in their homes where they’d love to have Halio. Since we announced Halio in December, we have been getting calls from consumers who want the product in their homes. We think residential will be big for us.”
With companies such as Gentex already infiltrating the automotive and aerospace industries with its smart glass technology, this helps to highlight a whole world of opportunities for emerging companies such as Kinestral. “Transportation, including cars, planes, and yachts, would definitely benefit from Halio technology — you can be sure that this is an area we are looking at closely,” added Henricksen.
Looking further into the future, there are other potential use cases for the same chemical process that powers EC smart glass — and it may involve materials other than glass, according to Kinestral. But when asked to elaborate, Henricksen said: “We can’t give specifics on future products at this stage.”
Where opportunities lie, challenges are normally not far behind. A world in which the word “curtains” evokes a similar nostalgic reaction to that of the typewriter today is still some way off, but long-standing players such as Sage and Gentex have been laying the foundations for smart glass for a while, and more recent entrants such as Kinestral and View will strive to push the technology to the next level in terms of reach.
A key factor in reaching true scale with any fledgling technology is price. Neither View nor Kinestral publish their pricing, but it’s fair to say that it will be significantly more expensive than standard double-glazing, meaning this is at least one obstacle to growth. According to Kinestral, there is a premium associated with its Halio glass compared to conventional glass, but it’s envisaging being able to push the cost down as it ramps up production. “We have not announced pricing yet, but we will be competitive with other complete solar control solutions,” said Henricksen.
A key point worth noting regarding smart glass is that it’s pitched as an all-in-one solution to an extent — you don’t need to pay for windows and window coverings such as fancy blinds. “Today you must have glass, blinds, drapes, and, depending on the building, automated shades that try to make it easier for users to have control of the sunlight coming into buildings,” he continued. Then there are other potential longer-term savings, such as air conditioning and other electricity-consuming contraptions typically used to regulate a room’s temperature.
To get the technology into “every home and building,” as is Kinestral’s stated goal, it needs to reach a sensible cost structure, which means it has to become a large-scale operation quickly. This can also put a lot of pressure on young upstart companies, which is why partnering with existing giants of the manufacturing world will help advance the smart glass cause, in terms of avoiding “rookie mistakes” and also giving it a leg up into lucrative industries. Japanese glass manufacturing giant Asahi Glass Co (AGC) led Kinestral’s previous funding round, while Foxconn, via its GTOC subsidiary, is helping Kinestral create a “world-class manufacturing facility.” Such deals will prove vital for the fledgling smart glass movement.
“We are continuing to forge partnerships with the goal to quickly allow us bring Halio to as many people as possible, while learning from our partners what NOT to do in building a global supply chain,” explained Henricksen.
When any new technology comes to the fore, hesitation or resistance to change from within big industry is often a key obstacle to its adoption. And although View already has hundreds of installations under its belt already, getting companies to embrace smart glass and its advantages is one barrier to growth it has identified.
“The biggest challenge we face for even more widespread adoption is a building and construction industry that is slow to adapt to change,” said Klawuhn. “For the most part, the ecosystem of key stakeholders in the industry — building-owners, developers, and architects — is accustomed to standard clear glass, and see dynamic glass technology as a luxury rather than a necessary feature that carries valuable benefits. But with dynamic glass, seeing — and experiencing — is believing. When people experience our dynamic glass for the first time, they instantly realize its value and wonder how they tolerated the cumbersome glare and discomfort of unwanted heat from standard clear glass for so long.”
Smart glass remains a niche, but it’s clear, if you’ll pardon the pun, that early-stage mainstream adoption is happening, with the likes of Netflix, San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, and other well-known brands adopting the technology. And this could serve as a seed that will help drive uptake — some of the companies using smart glass employ hundreds or thousands of people, and these people at some point will talk to those in the building and construction industries, or decide they want smart glass in their own homes. We could see a snowball effect, where demand for smart glass grows, which leads to more companies entering the smart glass industry, which in turn drives up production, thus leading to lower costs.
Twenty years from now, your children or grandchildren may very well ask you: “Did people really used to drape large pieces of cloth over their windows to keep the light out?”