How we shop, how we work out, how we receive medical care – you name the sector and odds are good that it underwent some major transformations during 2020. That being said, many of the most dramatic changes were less the result of the COVID-19 pandemic than accelerated by it, and this is particularly true in the world of connected tech. Companies didn’t invent entirely new processes to remedy pandemic-related service gaps, but hurried in-progress solutions to market. And, in so doing, they also transformed our lives at home and out in the world.
What types of new technology have been particularly major players in our lives during 2020? At the heart of it all were a variety of Augmented Reality (AR) products, like virtual dressing rooms and Face AR for video conferencing, as well as well as AI-based fitness tools like Mirror, a connected fitness device acquired by Lululemon Athletica last year. But as critical as such technology appears to be to our new lifestyle ecosystem, such elements represent significant challenges, especially for the manufacturing sector.
Automated Manufacturing Meets Glass
Automation has been central to the manufacturing sector for years and it’s long been recognized that the only way the industry can keep up with demand today is by continuing to build on industrial automation. When it comes to glass, though, that’s easier said than done. After all, in premise, glass’s value comes largely from the fact that it’s clear. That’s not a problem for human workers who can still perceive its bounds and work with it in industrial settings, but it can present real challenges to robotic vision systems and create barriers to mass manufacturing new technologies.
In typical manufacturing settings, robotic vision programs use reflected light to scan materials and identify key points, allowing for precision work with minimal human involvement. When this same vision is turned on glass or highly reflective metal, however, these vision systems can’t collect the necessary information; the glass or metal is essentially invisible. Observing this issue, there are now new manufacturers working to develop advanced robotic vision programs that use different systems, such as light filters and changing points of view, that can enable such systems to successfully work with glass or shiny metals.
What does such robotic vision look like in practice? Imagine that a business wants to install new glass storefronts that allows customers to interact with displays or browse without even setting foot inside the store. It’s a good idea, and one that shares many traits with other display trends that have been in the news for nearly a decade, but tricky to execute in practice. To create a transparent glass display that’s actually a functional LCD screen, manufacturers will need to be able to apply the same types of automated manufacturing technology that they use for computers, and that means using robotic vision that can see the glass its working on. It’s a tall order, but it’s also the reality of modern technology.
Fitness AIs Rise
Another area in which improved glass-detection will be key to manufacturing is in the growth of the connected fitness sector. Connected fitness has been all the rage since the launch of products like Fitbit, but that was just a starting point. Since then – and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in interest in home fitness – the market for connected fitness tech has exploded. In addition to Fitbit, there are now countless other fitness and health wearables, home fitness equipment like the Peloton bike and SoulCycle’s competitor bike, and the Mirror fitness system mentioned above. All this is to say that people want to work out at home and they need tools to do it.
The Mirror fitness system represents many of the challenges facing glass manufacturing today. Placed in your home, it acts precisely as the name implies – as a mirror – but turn the device on and it’s a mirror, a screen playing a class, and an AI-connected system offering workout modifications and tracking fitness goals. That’s some complicated engineering, and it raises questions about how the device, and other devices like it, is made.
Most of the high-tech mirror and glass products on the market function, at least to some degree, on proprietary technology, so a full glimpse behind the curtain isn’t possible. However, we can infer based on our understanding of robotic vision systems that these products rely on cutting edge technology. Unlike other AI-powered machine vision programs, the ability to detect objects isn’t enough. Instead, it needs to be able to detect items that are, in many ways, meant to avoid detection.
Windshields And Other Glass Innovations
Where else is new glass manufacturing technology in use or on the verge of emergence? There are a number of areas of interest, including smart windshields that could prevent distracted driving, AR smart glasses, which have proved their growth potential in recent years after the initial failure of Google Glass, and much more. All of that indicates high demand for more complex, precise glass manufacturing and processing tools, with invisible but overlaid sensor systems.
One product that may be especially influential in understanding connected technology engineering and manufacturing is the subsector of smart glass known as light control glass of LCG. This glass product has recently experienced an explosion of growth stemming from its use in construction.
LCG has been embraced by builders and property financiers who recognize the health benefits of access to sunlight. Instead of installing tinted glass in window-heavy buildings, then, they choose digitally modifiable glass; individual users can adjust their windows with the power of touch. Better manufacturing technology now allows these glass products to filter out specific light forms, include hazardous UV rays, or darken to mimic traditional privacy glass. Within its niche, this is what’s known as a dynamic material and its applications are extensive.
Now, a significant part of what makes glass so valuable in all of the above applications, as well as in our smart phones and tablets, is that it works well in conjunction with the types of plastic conductive materials commonly used together. Essentially, the plastic conductive film touches the glass and completes a circuit. Typically, that doesn’t work with an all-plastic system, though, which is why we all have to go around worrying that we’ll drop our cellphones and crack the screens. The glass is just too important.
What some new equipment manufacturers are now attempting to develop is a plastic alternative that can stand in for glass’s conductive properties, which would allow for touch-sensitive but durable and lightweight products. Essentially, the more products that rely on touchscreens, the more incentive there is to develop an affordable, plastic alternative. Glass may function well and feel high-end, but it’s expensive and often impractical and our connected environment demands innovation.
Smart Glass Goes Plastic
Among the many potential applications of plastic alternatives to conductive smart glass products include high wear and tear, including AR-based virtual dressing rooms, the high-tech reinvention of stores like Toys R Us, which now features numerous touchscreen stations, and many children’s products. Plastic alternatives are also ideal for outdoor applications like the National Parks, local hiking trails, and even amusement parks, where touchscreens are more likely to be subject to weather conditions and other activity. Durability is a common manufacturing priority across industries, so everything we learn about smart glass manufacturing should be quickly applied to plastic analogs.
Over the last decade, we have steadily made progress towards a moment when users expect everything to be touchscreen equipped, but that moment remains elusive. Still, we’re getting closer, and sturdier material options will bring us closer still. Other improvements in projected capacitive technology allow for faster response times from touchscreen tools, greater durability that prevents scratches and cracks from significantly impacting overall device function, and new anti-glare and anti-stiction technology for greater interactive ease.
Ultimately, transparent conduction technology is going to steadily move away from glass, but most innovations will likely still begin with glass manufacturing. Because of the many advantages that glass offers in terms of quality and conductive capacity and its preference as a material in high-end connected tech, glass is the obvious template. New practices and materials will develop from there.