TEL AVIV — Historians tend to associate human epochs with the dominant raw materials of these eras: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.
Accordingly, our contemporary times are often characterized as the Silicon Age — not as a tribute to Silicon Valley, but to silica, the foundation stone of the Information Technology industry.
And yet a few months ago, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of the popular American TV show MythBusters, coined a new name for the current era: the Glass Age. It is an era where more and more materials become transparent, and technological advances enable using these materials in more sophisticated instruments: mirrors and glass sheets that can serve as computer screens, windows that are also solar panels, daily devices that, with a thin film, are made into intuitive touchscreens, and even materials that, after a complex process, would make them look transparent even though they aren't.
These materials and technologies already exist, or are at least in advanced stages of development. For armies they could offer solutions for old battlefield problems, and they open up new possibilities in the world of architecture. They join the growing trends of minimization, wearable technologies, and the so-called "Internet Of Things."
If we are indeed on the verge of the Glass Age, this would be a natural evolution from the Silicon Age. The high-tech industry's formal objective is to create advanced, comfortable and light applications that upgrade our daily routines so that even technology becomes invisible.
Fold your iPad
Last year Cambridge University researchers presented a prototype of a flexible screen. It is a thin and transparent display that heralds the near future of folding tablets and wearable multimedia. This screen is made of one of the world's most revolutionary materials: graphene.
Graphene was discovered by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, earning them the 2010 Noble prize in physics. It is a hard sheet of graphite, the same material used in pencils, and is one-atom thick. This microscopic thickness and complete transparency are astonishingly coupled with conduction and rare stiffness.
Nevertheless, a number of technology companies, primarily LG and Samsung, have already begun developing flexible LCD and OLED screens that can be bent or even rolled. Other companies have presented preliminary concepts for fully transparent TV and computer displays.
Imagine you could cover pretty much anything with a thin transparent film that would convert sunlight into energy. Light bulbs could recharge through their own glass, mobile phones would be charged on café tables, and apartments would be powered by their own windows.
Such technology has been developed at Michigan State University and now serves American startup Ubiquitous Energy. The university researchers discovered a material called Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrator (TLSC), and Ubiquitous hopes to use it to usher in the boldest of energy revolutions. In the meantime, the main hurdle is its low efficiency — 1% utilization, seven times less than standard solar panels.
A transparent car prototype shown at Las Vegas' 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show — Photo: Yang Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA
Ubiquitous stress that the technology is still young. In fact, the very existence of a transparent solar panel is in itself remarkable.
A glass-like concrete might still be far away, but translucent concrete is already on the market. Until recently it was primarily found in design exhibitions, but it has already started appearing in cities. Lucem, one of the producers of this material, has used it for the façade of its headquarters in Aachen, Germany. In February, award-winning Belgian architect Gianni Botsford designed a garden pavilion made of translucent concrete that allows, at certain times of the day, the landscape around it to be seen through the walls as if they were made of a milky glass.
Creating this material is rather simple — the concrete mix includes 5% glass or plastic shreds that have been grounded to powder. Another technique weaves tiny optic fibers into the concrete blocks creating a pattern of "light tunnels."
For now, the main obstacle standing between this new material and the market is the related cost.
Killing the blind spot
It might still be a bit too early for fully transparent cars, but some researchers and car producers have recently been toying with various concepts of standard cars that would seem transparent for their passengers.
Scientists in the media design department of Japan's Keio University and automakers such as Jaguar Land Rover are exploring new video technologies, cameras and thin, flexible displays that would substitute those parts of the vehicle that block drivers' field of vision, thus creating an optical illusion of a completely transparent vehicle.
A few months ago Samsung tested a different version of the new gimmick. A truck was fitted with special cameras at its front and a large flat screen on its rear, showing the road ahead of the truck. Such screens, Samsung says, could help prevent accidents during passing.
Researchers from Keio University went even further last year when they presented an experimental system that includes sensors that track eye movements and allows every passenger in the car to enjoy a realistic optical illusion of transparency.