There used to be a Saturday morning cartoon called The Jetsons. It was very futuristic – and one of the noteworthy things in the series was the smart building George and his family lived in. A robot that took care of the household, an integrated jogging floor on the balcony, push-button TV screen that triggered machines to cook dinner, set mood lighting, activate mood music; windows that got darker or lighter, and so much more.
Here in 2020, we are getting ever-closer to the George Jetson era. As I wrote in my blog Cloud Brains, Smart Buildings that we have hit a confluence of low-cost sensors, wireless technology and ubiquity, processor price/performance, container technology, and we now have all the ingredients to build some very smart buildings. The more prosaic concepts that come to mind for a smart building deal with more efficient uses of electricity. Huge benefit on costs, the environment and ultimately humanity on the planet for sure – but not a gee wiz visual like in George Jetson. But, what if we extended energy management to mean smart windows that could be controlled to get lighter and darker? That’s better. If I was in an outer ring cubicle, being able to dim the blinding light of sunrise, or the noonday sun, or the baking late afternoon west sun – that would be awesome – and it would be more efficient. What if we had CO2 sensors in our APs that could alert the building control systems to increase airflow? Certainly, that would improve the performance of the gaggle of people working at close quarters in a small conference room. Nice. …But not George Jetson.
OK – I am no OLED HDTV manufacturing expert, but I can dream with the best of them. What about a window that is coated with OLED that could be a normal window, but included tint control for light or dark to improve energy and work efficiency, or could respond to the push of a smartphone touchscreen and become an HDTV. That’s what I am talking about. George Jetson incarnate. It just happens that this isn’t science fiction. It is feasible. Is it cost-effective? I can’t say. Does it look ultra-awesome? In the demonstrations, I’ve seen it has the absolute “I want one of those” sensations. Can I buy one tomorrow? Probably not. How about next year? Could be…
But what other technology or application might have clicked with Jane and George Jetson? What if the Jetsons could write on their windows, like big whiteboards, to collaborate and help the kids with homework. What if the window wasn’t just an HDTV, but part of a Zoom video conferencing system? What if the glass cloud changes its RF transmissivity properties? Letting in more RF for a cellular band in one part of the building, while blocking out interfering Wi-Fi from a building next door in another part of the building. What if the windows could actually be an antenna? Very cool. All this is possible.
Moving on from the glassware, what else could the smart building of the future do for us? It is certainly easy to imagine Google Home upscaled to Google Smart Building for all types of tasks – like dimming the lights or ordering more paper towels in the washroom (I mean using the hot air blower). What if the building could sense not just carbon dioxide and temperature, but humidity, other gases, the presence of humans, the presence of known and new-to-the-building humans. Let’s explore what that might mean to the people in this building.
In a school, you can imagine detecting vaping in the restrooms, or perhaps the presence of THC? The sensor could talk to the appropriate cloud application, and alert the appropriate people. It could have the hallway security cameras record who leaves the room within some timeframe after the detection alarm, etc. What if the same sensor had a high-frequency audio input sensor to detect the sound of firearms? Not a scenario we want to think about, but one that is a potential reality on the education campus. What if this detection could make windows clear, or opaque, as the circumstance warrants? What if the building could generate “blinding light” or extraordinarily disruptive sound, to confound, confuse and confront a shooter? What if the building could also effectively take the shooter’s cell phone offline? The opportunity for physical security applications across a broad range of scenarios is clearly the future of smart buildings.
Sensing THC or vaping for certain buildings is certainly useful. Likewise, identifying sharp, scary sounds. But humans are mammals after all. Our bodies, physiology, mood, alertness, and productivity all respond to our environment. Studies from Carnegie Mellon, USC, Oxford demonstrate that when employees move from an old-style building to an early model smart building, alertness can be measured as 29% better; concentration improves over 10%, productivity improves by more than 20%. Headaches at work drop by >50%, drowsiness is reduced by >50%, eyestrain goes down, employees are far more likely to recommend coming to their smart building company by a huge percentage. In the end, the OpEx of such a smart building is far more efficient. From usage of square footage to energy savings, to the productivity of the mammals in the building, smart buildings are the future – and all of us will want to work in one.
I recently wrote about the fact that new technology will make it simpler and more capable to do video analytics at the edge. Video analytics can detect the presence of humans or, in a more advanced fashion, specific people. There are lots of ramifications of this capability, many of which are powerfully helpful to advance a business or organization. There is also the potential for some “creepiness” factors here as well.
We are on the verge of a huge transformation for the smart building of the future. We haven’t even touched on the topic of building connectivity and communications; which is a large and rich OT/IT topic all by itself. What we can see here, however, is that long before we all might have autonomous personal flying vehicles that transport us from home to work ala George Jetson’s zippy flying car – we will see the emergence of technology that reduces the carbon footprint of buildings, improves the health and productivity of the people that work there, provides various forms of physical security, and can improve the collaborative performance of teams with the advent of OLED-enabled building glass. The future is so bright, you’ll have to wear shades. Well, not really. The building will automatically darken the windows – no shades necessary.