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I have seen the future (and it's made of glass)

Here's how incredible breakthroughs in glass technology will transform consumer electronics

April 28, 2012 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - It's hard to think of glass as an area of rapid technology evolution. But it's one of the central technologies that will bring us incredible innovations over the next couple of years.

A combination of new technology, plus a strong desire on the part of major companies to transform glass, will affect nearly every category of consumer electronics, from smart watches to phones to tablets to desktop computers to smart homes and offices.

Hundreds of companies and organizations are working on the coming glass revolution. But here are four companies and one university that announced serious breakthroughs recently, shattering old ideas about what's possible with glass.

Google wants wearable glass

Google's Sebastian Thrun appeared this week on the Charlie Rose program, and demonstrated Google's Project Glass for the first time in public.

The technology involves special glasses, which use glass and mirrors to project a computer display onto one eye, creating the illusion that relevant information is floating in the air. Wireless connectivity and artificial intelligence enables you to conjure up facts, see things in context, send messages by voice and even take pictures by blinking.

He took the first-ever published photo taken by the glasses, and posted them on Google+ by simply nodding his head.

Google's research is moving fast, and it's validated the category. We're going to see augmented reality products coming out this year that do much of what Google is trying to do.

Apple wants curved glass

Apple is totally smitten with the idea of curved glass.

The first place we've seen this obsession is in the ceilings of Apple stores. Apple even applied for a patent this week for its curved-glass ceiling design.

In his presentation to the Cupertino City Council last summer about Apple's proposed "spaceship" campus, Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder and CEO, said there wouldn't be a single piece of straight glass in the entire building.

But it's in Apple gadgets where the curved glass idea gets really exciting.

Rumors began circulating in September after Taiwanese magazine DigiTimes reported (registration required) that Apple had purchased hundreds of special-purpose machines for the factory manufacturing of curved-glass displays. Some said the iPhone, or maybe the iPod, would become curved-glass devices.

The most compelling device for Apple would be a curved-glass wristwatch device, which controls other Apple products and interacts via iCloud.

I think it's likely we'll see such a product very soon.

Microsoft wants smart glass

I wrote a column in this space in October about Microsoft's vision for the future of ubiquitous computing, which they illustrated with two videos.

Microsoft's predictions are all based on what current research will make possible or affordable in the future. Many of these ideas are based on major breakthroughs in the cost, quality and functionality of glass.

For example, Microsoft envisions augmented-reality taxicab windows, wall-size displays and computer displays on surfaces like kitchen counters.

A theme is that computer displays can also be see-through. And, in fact, Microsoft developed a prototype for technology that uses transparent displays, called the see-through 3D desktop.

It's a foregone conclusion that transparent computer displays will be cheap and ubiquitous in the near future. I don't believe Microsoft will be directly involved in the making of such products, but many companies will be building innovative smart-glass display technologies that will roughly mirror Microsoft's vision (including smart mirrors).



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