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When Is a Window also a Touch Screen?

When Toyota, Fiat, and Cadillac decide the old-fashioned, noninteractive car window isn’t good enough.
July 30, 2011

Don’t you find windows just a tad too … static?

We are entering an age when an image surrounded by a frame – on your laptop, on your TV, on your tablet – is almost expected to be interactive. Why then, hasn’t that happened yet with windows? Several projects in the works, from car companies and designers, envision a time in the not-too-distant future when windows will be more like touchscreens.

Take Toyota’s collaboration with the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, for instance. “Window to the World,” as the concept is called, envisions car windows that add an interactive layer to the scenery outside. A video (that appears to be largely the work of special effects) shows how the concept would work. At times the window could act as an Etch-a-Sketch of sorts, with the passenger tracing, say, the outline of a sheep. In another mode, the screen could estimate the distance of various objects from the side of the car; in another, it could recognize objects (a barn, a bike), and offer up vocabulary lessons in a foreign tongue. And with the reverse-pinch motion now familiar to touchscreen users, the passenger could even zoom in on an object in the distance.

If all that seems a bit excessive, for what can mostly be achieved with binoculars and a phrasebook, then Glasgow University’s project in a similar vein might interest you more. The project is slightly different – rather than serving as a souped-up Gameboy to pacify the impatient passenger, GU wants to make the next generation of “heads-up displays” already familiar from the world of military aviation. These would be computer-screen like windshields for the driver of the vehicle to glean data (speed, fuel levels), without having to take his or her eyes off the road.

As The Engineer recently reported, it’s a quest that’s involving researchers across Europe, including the automaker Fiat and the glassmaker Saint-Gobin. At the heart of the project is an effort to commercialize 3-D nanostructures on the windows surface that “affect the brightness and direction of the light.” Rather than projecting the display on the windshield, LEDs would emit light at the windshield’s edge; the nanostructures imprinted on the glass would then emit the light in the proper locations to display information. The whole process would be more energy efficient than an old-school projection method. If the project works, it could also lead to brighter LED screens and even “dumb” windows that nonetheless let in more natural light (hence Saint-Gobin’s interest).

Still not satisfied with the selection of brainiac windows in the works? The Los Angeles Times directs us to one more: interactive touchscreen car window stickers. Whereas Toyota’s interested in the passenger, and Fiat’s interested in the driver, Cadillac – and the digital marketing agency it’s working with, Fusion92 – is interested in the potential buyer who’s just walked into the showroom. “At first glance, it looks like any ordinary window sticker displaying price, features, fuel economy and such,” explains Fusion92 on its site, “but when a customer walks by the car the window comes to life, making the glass a fully interactive touch-screen kiosk.” A prospective buyer can fiddle with the sticker to customize the car’s features, watch videos of the car in action, and share information about the car over Facebook and Twitter. A video shows the sticker in action.

Enough with looking through windows; apparently, it’s time to start looking at them.

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