When Yi Zhong-Schipp talks about smart glass and augmented reality, it sounds very futuristic and like the distant future. But it is striking that smart glass has long since arrived in everyday life and is becoming more and more widespread. For the Team Lead Optical Design at ZEISS Microoptics, one thing is clear: smart glass will change the world and enable a better life. But what does the future hold?
Strictly speaking, the idea of smart glass is actually a very old one. Anyone familiar with the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, for example, is likely to have come across an early instance in a work more than 200 years old: in the first edition of "Snow White" from 1812. Or what else could the "Mirror, mirror on the wall" be if not intelligent glass?
Somewhat later, smart glass also made its way into movies, such as in "Star Trek" and other science fiction classics. For Yi Zhong-Schipp, however, the subject is not a matter of fairy tales or movies. For the Team Lead Optical Design at ZEISS Microoptics, smart glass has long been a reality. Not only in her job, but now also in the everyday lives of many people. "Smart glass is slowly but surely becoming part of our day-to-day lives," she says. "It's a technology for everyone and it has the potential to change the world. Much more so than we might think today." Yi Zhong-Schipp knows exactly what she is talking about: she studied physics in China and wanted to broaden her knowledge in Germany. Photonics was one of her areas of expertise. So she decided to move to Jena, home to one of the oldest German optics companies: ZEISS. This was followed by a master's degree and then a doctorate. Zhong-Schipp has been working as an optical designer at ZEISS for three years and has been a team lead for two years. She has grown fond of both the job and the city: "The mountains remind me of the hometown," she says.
Smart glass not only makes driving more comfortable but also much safer.
Augmented reality – the best of both worlds
What she particularly enjoys about her work is that she is constantly learning something new. "I used to work a lot with traditional optical components such as lenses and mirrors," says Zhong-Schipp. At Microoptics, she is now working on a completely new technology: smart glass. "The special thing about smart glass is that we combine the digital technology and the optical hardware in one application," she explains. A patented IP platform provides the basis with the help of various microstructured optical elements and holographic optical elements. This turns aa simple piece of glass or transparent plastic surface into a smart application that users can view and interact with. This is an achievement of digitalization "that we can no longer ignore," says Zhong-Schipp. "As an engineer, I got a sense at an early stage of the changes that digitalization would bring. That's why I'm also a big fan of digitalization."
The key to innovations such as smart glass is the technology known as augmented reality, i.e. a reality that is enhanced by digital depiction on a smart surface like in a car. "Normally, I just look at a normal display and have to take my eyes off the road to see all the information," explains Zhong-Schipp. "However, with augmented reality and smart glass, it is possible to display images directly on the windshield." Navigation, for example, would then no longer appear on a separate screen, but could be projected directly onto the road through the windshield. In combination with artificial intelligence, the car would be able to learn to recognize sources of danger and make them visible directly in the driver's field of vision via a hologram in the dashboard. "This not only makes driving more comfortable but also safer," says Zhong-Schipp.
Smart glass is transforming everyday life
But smart glass can have practical benefits not just in cars but in homes too. Daniel Gorr sees this every day. He is Head of Marketing and Head of Purchasing at tink1, an expert and provider of connected home products. He says: "A smart home has many benefits that everyone can customize to their individual needs, with real gains in energy efficiency, comfort and accessibility." This is also the case with applications for intelligent surfaces such as multifunctional smart glass. While the most popular products may still be in the areas of heating, security, lighting and gardening, entertainment in particular, which includes smart glass, is becoming increasingly important. "Technology is developing at a rapid pace. I can certainly imagine it being possible to control and monitor your home with smart glass soon," says Gorr. "This would make homes interactive and smart home control even easier to use."
Smart home in numbers
the number of smart home users worldwide has risen in the last 5 years.2
households are expected to use smart home systems in 5 years.2
Christiane Varga shares this view. She is a trend researcher at the Zukunftsinstitut in Vienna, where her work primarily involves the future of living – and therefore the smart home. She sees the "simplification of an increasingly complex everyday life" as the greatest advantage of smart homes. She believes smart glass could really help with this in the future. In her opinion, it does not play a major role in people's lives at the moment. "But the public is catching on to this development," she says. The trend researcher sees opportunities for smart glass technology primarily in the areas of gaming, infotainment, retail, work, music, photography and travel. "Smart glass has the potential to replace smartphones in many areas," she believes. Here, protecting sensitive data is crucial.
I want to work on things that make life easier. If your work also makes driving safer, if a doctor can examine patients without having to travel halfway around the world or families can make video calls from anywhere, that makes a real difference.
Many technologies, combined in one solution
Yi Zhong-Schipp and her team work every day to ensure that even more people have access to these breakthroughs. "With our multifunctional smart glass technology, we are able to create more value in areas where conventional optics systems reach their limits," she emphasizes. For her, this is a particular challenge when it comes to smart surfaces. "This is not just about one technology, but about the integration of many technologies," explains Zhong-Schipp. She lists them: laser technology is important for manufacturing microstructures. Material development in turn addresses the questions about the right surface function quality. At the same time, good hardware is needed for integration on the glass and software is crucial for functionality.
ZEISS makes the difference with its hologram replication technology. "Our systems are much more compact than conventional systems," says Zhong-Schipp: "Complicated optical applications usually requires very large lenses. We only need one thin layer of multifunctional smart glass – really light and really small." Their next goal is to make this technology ready for series production: in other words, to mass produce high-quality smart surfaces with innovative technology from ZEISS. This requires collaboration between different fields: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, quality assurance with metrology. "We have to take all of this into account," says the expert. "But if we succeed, we will be able to live in a completely different world in the future."
But no matter how complex the development of these solutions might be, it is just as thrilling when one of them is turned it into an application. "That's the most exciting moment," says Zhong-Schipp: "When you see one of your systems, you're incredibly proud." That is what drives her too: "I want to work on things that make life easier. If your work also makes driving safer, if a doctor can examine patients without having to travel halfway around the world or families can make video calls from anywhere, that makes a real difference." It might sound like a fairytale, but it is also the future.
In focus: smart glass
While electrochromic glass is useful for transmission control, multifunctional smart glass offers a variety of other functions, such as eye or gesture tracking, without visible optics systems. Multifunctional glass contains a series of integrated microstructured optics that are completely invisible. You can use any size of glass you like with a variety of different functions. Smart multifunctional glass will soon be able to illuminate, identify, filter and project.
Smart glass has many functions. These includes intelligent glass that displays information, can change color, becomes transparent or milky (opaque), receives messages (via voice commands) and functions as an input surface similar to a smartphone. As glass is used in a wide variety of places, smart glass can also be deployed in various locations – at home, at work, in the car, in public, train stations, airports, shopping centers. Possible applications for smart glass in homes include the bathroom mirror, shower, kitchen, elevator, windows, room partitioning systems, eyeglasses, smartphones and tablets, and much more.
There are different types of multifunctional glass – depending on the area of application. Smart glass can be used in industry to optimize processes. In cars, holograms can be used to project information onto the windshield, for example, so that drivers can see the information directly on the road and no longer have to avert their gaze. It is the same with the windows in the aircraft cockpit. Thanks to multifunctional smart glass, projected keyboards, holographic cameras and transparent screens with different projection levels are a reality today, meaning smart glass has also arrived in the consumer sector. The same is true for its use in a smart home, such as in mirrors or doors.