We recently had the chance to speak with Craig Henricksen, VP of Marketing for Kinestral Technologies, a natural light management company based in Hayward, California. Kinestral has perfected the smart window experience after designing electrochromic glass technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and the OpenThread wireless protocol to adjust natural light within buildings and homes continuously. The smart windows are based on Silicon Labs Wireless Gecko technology and can reduce building energy usage by up to 20 percent, an amazing feat for any type of product. Below, Craig shares how the company got its start, how the technology works, and some glimpses of potential future applications.
Kinestral’s smart windows are a great example of smart home solutions Silicon Labs and our partners are working on every day. We encourage you to register for our Smart Home Webinar on June 10, 2020, where you can learn how to build smart home products that work across any ecosystem. And if you missed it live, you can always watch it again on-demand.
How did the idea for a smart window come about?
Our two founders got together in 2010 after each having success at other material companies to create disruptive technology on their own. Howard Turner, now CTO, who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and Sam Bergh, our COO, who has a Ph.D. in Engineering, discovered their combined expertise fit well with a class of products called electrochromic technology. The process creates a smart window by applying a voltage or electrical impulse to a class of materials that causes a chemical reaction and controls light passing through a substrate. At the time, the technology had been around for 20 plus years, but several flaws were limiting its adoption by the market.
Price, of course, was an issue, but the primary reason was related to performance. Previous smart window technologies in a clear state tended to be yellow and/or honey-colored, then as they were tinted, the glass would become blueish and/or purple. The tinting process was also slow, often taking up to 30-40 minutes to take place. When I started at the company five years ago, I realized the founders had spent their first five years at the company perfecting the materials. When I joined, they showed me a piece of glass that looked like normal glass in a clear state, but it changed to a cool gray color extremely fast. Since then, we’ve been focused on commercializing the technology.
Can you tell me about the product?
Halio is a smart-tinting glass based on advanced electrochromic technology that is controlled through a building automation system, a home automation system, a smartphone app, or our Halio dashboard. We built a cloud infrastructure system to manage the AI to control the building and glass environment. The window looks like natural glass, but it tints to cool gray shades when the sun gets a little too hot or a little too bright. We have been shipping Halio for four years from our pilot plant in Hayward. We now have a new large-scale manufacturing facility that can produce up to 5 million square feet of glass per year, and it has been shipping products for the past year and a half.
How do you differentiate yourself from competitors?
Halio offers aesthetic differences, such as how we removed a lot of the unwanted color in the clear and tinting states. With 60 patents, our glass also adjusts 10x faster than the competition with much more uniformity because we invested in a process that allows the tint to be distributed across any size panel. The fact that it is cloud-based reduces the need for in-building infrastructure. Another major differentiator is our high-yield manufacturing process.
Who are your primary customers right now?
We are currently selling our product in more than 30 countries, and we have numerous commercial and residential customers. One of our largest customers is a Southern California based REIT. We also have a strategic partnership with the largest glass manufacturer in the world, AGC Inc.
What is the primary driver for customers buying your product?
When I first started at Kinestral, I assumed it would be all about energy efficiency. But for early movers in the energy-efficient building space, they were already addressing energy improvements with LEED building standards. Interestingly, the big driver we see among customers is the amenity of natural light - the connection to the outdoors and the people inside. This experience within a building is the leading reason for adoption. The energy benefits cement the deal, but energy savings is not the primary reason for the initial purchase.
How exactly does Halio work?
If you’re lucky, your office building has a view, and you have something nice to look at every day. In the morning when you get there, it’s dark, and there are no blinds on the windows, as blinds aren’t needed. Instead of being blinded by the light when the sun comes up, Halio AI predicts when the sun rises based on the building location, time of year, angle of the sun, and other factors. People inside don’t need to do anything for the light to be adjusted; they can still enjoy the sun coming up through windows, but the tint level is comfortable - thermally and glare-wise. Throughout the day, as the light changes outside, the façade will automatically adjust to keep people inside comfortable.
Can people still look out of the windows?
Yes, the dynamic is no different than traditional glass except the tint, but it is a bit more difficult to see in. Many customers also use the glass for indoor glass conference rooms, which can be manually tinted depending on privacy needs.
Tell me about your relationship with Silicon Labs – how do we fit into your product?
We use Silicon Labs’ Wireless Gecko SoCs throughout our Halio product. Our design team has a long history with Silicon Labs after working with technology at other companies, as well.
Originally, our product was based on the Thread protocol, but we are now moving to OpenThread. The cohesion on this move with Silicon Labs and the company’s ability to support this protocol was important for us. All of our units must talk to each other wirelessly, and Silicon Labs provides the underlying mesh network making all of this happen. Our system has numerous nodes, and when you’re putting infrastructure into a building, you need to have confidence that you’re not going to have connectivity or debugging issues.
Did you have any design challenges while creating the product?
The two big ones were low-power and the robustness of the mesh network itself. We offload most of the heavy lifting to the cloud, but we push instructions down to the individual nodes, and the nodes must be smart enough to follow directions (and have enough processing power). At the same time, the nodes must be low power and have a robust wireless connection. We get all of these critical functions in the Silicon Labs Wireless Gecko offering.
Do you anticipate any regulatory changes around climate change that could affect your future growth?
The origins of the company were not necessarily about saving the world. We set out to disrupt a market. But as we dug into the product, we realized we could make a big impact. What other building product out there can save 10-15 percent energy just by installing? This scenario isn’t a typical find. Not only do we provide a great product, but we contribute to sustainability, as smart glass is just a better way to design a building. And anyone who has spent time in a naturally lit building can attest to the fact that you feel it right away. It’s a better place to be and a better place to work.
The commercial market is ripe with opportunity, and it has been easier for us because competitors had already educated the market before we entered it. But where we see a great deal of excitement is in the residential market – people see the glass and want it in their kitchens and homes. The other market on the horizon is transportation, such as cars, airplanes, and trains.
Where do you see the future of IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
In architecture, you often hear about the trend of building personalization using technology. Still, I’ve been in marketing for 15 years, and that’s always been the case – the human need for individualism. But we’ve all had the experience of sitting next to someone with a different temperature profile than us, where the person is too hot, or too cold, or the room is too bright or too dark. Then you look at IoT, and the cost curve of technologies addressing these space personalization needs is coming down, so I think we’ll see a lot more personalized space technologies for people that actually travel with people - where space conforms to make you comfortable versus you adjusting to space.
The technology exists now, but today it’s more of an integration challenge.
To learn more about how Silicon Labs can help you develop your smart home project. Register for our Smart Home Webinar on June 10, 2020, where you can learn how to build smart home products that work across any ecosystem. And if you missed it live, you can always watch it again on-demand.