Enhanced Transparency

In a previous post “beyond transparency”, the notion of a window going beyond a mere transparency was considered. We evoked an “active” window which brings “more” than the just view. This window resembles more to an optical instrument than to just a transparent interface. But what are the functions of this instrument? What do the new technologies bring to it ? is it to enhance the vision capacity such as the range of vision, the interactivity ? or is it to produce energy or better control solar gain? or is there some other paths specific to the construction industry?

Fig : Digital Camera Principle –Light wavelength / vision range

Nowadays, when it comes to optics, one needs to consider mechanical optic and “digital” optic. The latter has extended the human vision capacity to a much wider range of wavelength, bringing at the same time, the notion of transparency to a new dimension. Vision can occur at ultra high speed or at extremely small or large distance. Vision is possible at night but also in the infra red, mapping heat field in a landscape. In short, the human eye vision is now just a small portion of what can be seen with these instruments, what was invible to us, opaque, is now visible as clear as through a window pane. So why are our windows so limited? Why can’t we switch from human vision to an extended or enhanced vision ? even in only a portion of a glass pane ?

Fig: Already anticipated in Science Fiction movies , enhanced vision and transparency though smart window screen or vision device : City of lost Children / Google glass / Total recall / I robot/ Infrared thermal deperdition survey / Predator

Once in this line of though, is the “smart window” a no-window ? replaced by some powerful cameras and some large display, which enable all sorts of views and transparency, with the whole range of digital optics possibility, such as almost all wavelength, enhancement capacity, zoom …

In fact, when one considers the growth of surveillance cameras installed everywhere, the trend is already there. They have given a new meaning to the “omnivision” strategy of the past, which could be found in prison architecture. The centripete vantage point has been replaced by an iconic surveillance wall made of multiple displays and camera feeds, so dear to Science Fiction movies and city hall security manager, why can this be integrate directly to the windows and not just for surveillance ?

Fig: iconic Sci-Fi multiple display : Clone/Fortress/ Ghost in the Shell / Clones

Cameras are now all around us not just as a passive witness. In self driving cars, coupled with more and more powerful algorithm able to recognize pattern, they participate to adaption of the behavior of the car. They represent in some sort the glass of the 21 rst century, as predicted by Virrilio in 1990 Book “Polar Inertia” “To the transparency of space, transparency of the horizon of the travels, of our journeys, would succeed then the “cathodic transparency” which is only the perfect accomplishment of the invention of glass, four thousand years ago, glass panes two thousand years ago, and this “vitrine” , enigmatic object which marks nontheless the urban history since the middle age to today, or more exactly, to the recent realization of the “electronic vitrine”, last horizon of our travel, which the flight simulator represent the most achieve model.”p42

Fig : Airbus Prototype : the interior face of the plane is a digital display showing the outside / Babylon AD : Armored vehicle with night vision surrounding display

Recently Airbus proposed to replace the windows for a new generation of planes by monitors and cameras. The monitors are fed with the images captured live outside the plane, showing the whole panorama around. Some commercial plane already diffuses the landing transmission live on the monitors, although I wonder if the diffusion would be on if it was having some trouble or crash landing…

Needless to say, that once the digital comes into the game, one need to watch out. The notion of transparency needs also to be extended to not just what we are able physically able to see. In other words, if glass is intrinsically transparent as a material, the display which relays an image/information can be tempered with .The transparency needs to be applied not only to the material of display but also to the information it is showing. Are the images shown the true real time outside feeds or of some pre-recorded or modified ? Actually, it could be anything and who would be able to tell ?

This lack of confidence in the media, has certainly killed, for the moment, the idea of a “no window” building, car or plane…. unless we are already underground, (which is not a small portion of the time spent in urbanized area…) or out of earth, in space.

Fig: First flat screen TV in “Things to comes” / Brazil

In fact, it did not kill the attraction of mixing glass with images or graphic display in space especially in science fiction movies. Very early the sci fi authors have seen the narrative potentials of expressing this extension of the range of vision, but before all, they are actually fascinated with screens, it has started even before the availability of TV set in ” Things to Come” in 1946 and then pursued in pretty all sci fi epic.

Fig: Collage Things to comes/ Mission to Mars / Minority report / Natural City / Cypher / Supernova

The blur boundary between glass and screen, is actually a key part of the science fiction aesthetic as it brings this immateriality or virtuality that the genre is often looking for. (In a related post, we go through this into more detail, and see how sci fi authors, use the whole range of possible use of glass, display and vision).

The revolution of vision did not yet hit the building industry, apart adding a few surveillance cameras, but let’s imagine if the window was also a large range wavelength display which extend and transforms the experience of vision. Imagine to be able to visualize heat fields, sound waves, opening up to others realities, the window as a synesthetic portal, extending the range of perception, feeling the sound and touching though a window.

Fig : Mission to mars flexible display / Night vision view

Things are slow in this industry and it is understandable, if we consider the high costs of these technologies compared to a typically low investment level for buildings, or if we consider the accelerated obsolescence of these high technologies, a few years compared with the expected durability of the buildings which is of a few decades.

May be the main aspect, is that it is very difficult to imagine being cut from the environment, and this is what glass provide and has always provided this link to the outside, If the cathedral glass were telling stories, they were also bringing before all, the light of heaven.

May be the way out, is to keep physical transparency and combine it with a semi transparent display. The integration of this untapped vision potential should increase as the technologies get cheaper. More over when you consider the predominance of vision in contemporary architecture?

May be complex formal, sculptural outburst fit more to the building industry because this stays within its realm than high tech digital interface which are too integrated to other industries?

Nonetheless it is actually interesting to see how glass has already evolved trying to develop some multifunctional directions while keeping “true” vision. Current glass windows are already quite “smart” with some extraordinary coatings, able to filter or reflect some high-energy wavelength of light without blocking the view. Some can adapt their opacity to the outer light level.

Fig : Switchable window in Blade Runner and The Island.

One of the earlier example is shown in the movie “ Blade runner,” with some seamless windows which change opacity dynamically. This adaptability belongs to the architects mythology of the future; certainly because it brings a dynamic component in a trade where weight and immobility are unavoidable, but also because it would be very useful.

Current glazing systems are mostly static, unable to adapt by themselves to changing light levels and therefore incoming energy. If in the summer, the sun energy is unnecessary, it is quite useful in the winter.

Fig: Sage Electrochromic glass / Nano holding switchable glass and infrared wave collector screen.

The electrochromic glass from Sage proposes this level of control, as it changes opacity to reduce solar gain. It has taken a very long time to be available which is already quite an achievement, since it got that far which is not the case of many other similar potential products.

Fig : Schott semi transparenct PV cell

Now let’s imagine if a glass unit could actually select or stop dynamically specific wavelength range, allowing infrared only when needed and transforming it into electricity, and do similarly with UV . This is what propose “nanoholdings” or different types of transparent or semi transparent PV cell They aim to transform solar gain into electricity, in keeping of most of the sacrosanct transparency. Most of these new forays are highly publicized and presented in very optimistic ways to attract investors to pursue the development, even if it could take decades before being really available.

But let’s come back to glass as a graphical interface, it is interesting to see how the tech industry has integrated the Sci Fi anticipation which merge glass with graphic interface. Even better if it is also a tactile interface… Some of this hightech industry, such as Corning, or Apple, and the Sci fi genre both feed or inspire each other’s with ideas or iconic scenes .

Fig on the left extract for Corning commercial video, and the right: Things to come/ Mission to mars/ Total Recall 2 / supernova, the list could be much longer.

A simple collage of extracts from a Corning commercial clip and some Sci Fi movie (past and recent) is speaking for itself. Some of these ideas are still at the stage of development, but the amazing thing is that there are getting real. These active interfaces provide more than just the mere transparency, they enable their users to cut out the limit of space through the immediacy of the real-time information, very close to Virrilio ‘s transparency.

If the google glass were a commercial and social flop, the idea of using real-time information in a vision enhancement wearable is ineluctable in the next decade in one form or another. If we trust the recent announcement from companies such as Hololens from Microsoft, Meta 2 or Magic Leap, virtual, augmented or mixed reality are on the way, opening new frontiers, not contained to a screen but wearable.

Fig: Virtual or mixed reality and holographic display Matrix/ Avatar/Minority report/District 9 / Prometheus/ Chrysalis

In SF movies, the rubicon has been crossed for some time already, we are so used to see these interfaces in star fighter, seeing the actors evolving into semitransparent graphics seems normal. This gets to a point that the switch to interactive holographic interface replacing 2D was barely noticed. The glass as a display support will ultimately disappear to be replaced by its old mistress, light itself.

Virillio does a differentiation between the direct light of the natural or artificial light and the indirect light of the electro optic, predicting that the window will soon bring a new kind of light and bring at the same time a new kind of transparency. «The image being the most sophisticated form of the information, it is logic to predict that the progress of technology will end up too in a redeployment of this indirect light: Numeric Light this time, capable of going though the darkness of the real space and of transmitting with the most realistic appearance, an unknown transparency, as already allowed by the utilization of the fractal geometry, with numeric zoom with are nothing else than a numeric lighting”. P 27

Smart glass in buildings is not yet smart enough compared to what is cooking or already practiced in the tech industry and it might stay like this for quite some time. As much I am eager to see these technologies come to architecture, I am also frustrated as a designer, to just witness the developments occurring in others industry while waiting years for some already outdated ersatz to be available. At the end, I wonder if the building industry will not just be bypassed by wearable or prosthetics which are much more powerful and flexible than what it may ever implement.

So is there some different approaches, using some more analog technologies and “mechanical” optics, to introduce locally some of what fascinate the Sci Fi Authors, these interplays between reality and virtuality? How to enhanced this old notion of transparency pushing the limit of the current and available technologies ?.

May be instead of waiting to use enhanced reality in actual building, it should be used to design them, not just to represent them. If some aspects of these technologies are definitely unreachable unless replacing the window by a screen, some can be evoked with simpler means which may be more indifferent to the high technology obsolescence rate.

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