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Office Windows Get Smart

Glass that can be darkened in bright sunlight is adopted by some businesses looking to save workers eyestrain but keep the view.

Smart windows gradually darken or lighten as desired, to reduce glare without eliminating the view as blinds do. Photo: Kinestral


Mayumi Negishi


Some businesses trying to coax more productivity from workers are starting to look at their windows.

That’s because the glass-sheathed modern office building poses some problems. Exposure to all the natural light streaming through those windows is supposed to help workers focus better by day and sleep better at night, research suggests. Yet many offices cover their windows permanently with shades to reduce the glare on people’s computer screens and keep direct sunlight out of their eyes.

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Enter smart, or electrochromic, windows. They sandwich liquid crystals, metal oxide or other substances that respond to a weak electric charge between two plates of glass. Flip a switch on a smartphone app, and those substances gradually darken or lighten as desired, to allow just the right amount of light into a room without glare and without erasing the view. Or the windows can be set to adjust automatically to light conditions.

The competition

Delta Air Lines Inc., DAL 2.15% FedEx Corp. and Wells Fargo are among the early converts, installing smart glass in their newest buildings.

A handful of suppliers have emerged. View Inc. says it has installed smart glass in more than 600 buildings, most of them in North America. Backed by investments from glassmaker Corning Inc. GLW 1.91% and investment-management firm BlackRock Inc., BLK 3.76% the Milpitas, Calif., company aims to more than double its annual output by year-end to more than 5 million square feet of glass.

Rival Kinestral Technologies Inc., based in Hayward, Calif., is expanding in Asia. Backed by investments from Foxconn Technology Group and Asahi Glass Co. ASGLY 1.29% , Kinestral is gearing up for mass production of its Halio glass this spring at a factory it runs with a Foxconn subsidiary in Taiwan, and is looking to build a second factory in 2020, when it hopes to break into the residential market.

Other suppliers include Cie. de Saint-Gobain SA subsidiary SageGlass , based in Faribault, Minn., and Diamond Glass ’s SmartGlass International , based in Dublin, both of which license technology from Research Frontiers Inc. REFR -0.21% of Woodbury, N.Y.

Wayne Sumner, president of insurance provider Jackson Sumner & Associates Inc., says he installed View’s windows in his new headquarters in Boone, N.C., in 2013, after an employee survey showed most workers wanted more natural light. The windows have allowed that while helping reduce the effects of eyestrain, he says.

“From every seat in the office, you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Mr. Sumner says. “You don’t get headaches. And I don’t see people nodding off at four o’clock any more.”

Smart windows also can help cut energy costs. In their opaque state, they reduce air-conditioning use, helping a building cut up to 8% of its total energy consumption, according to the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory .

Cost is an issue

There are drawbacks, though, starting with the price. Some users and glassmakers put the price of smart windows, including slightly higher installation costs, at anywhere from 30% more to double the price of conventional glass, even taking into account the cost of automated blinds and outdoor shades for the latter.

Smart-glass windows also have a shorter lifespan than traditional windows; many are guaranteed for only 10 years. They also take longer to go from clear to opaque and back again than it takes to lower or raise a shade—at least several minutes. And, like any internet-connected device, they are susceptible to hacking, which could be more of a problem in residential use, since a hacker might be able to deduce when people are away from home.

Also, the windows use only a tiny amount of electricity, but they need an independent power source in case of a power outage.

Ms. Negishi is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Tokyo. She can be reached at mayumi.negishi@wsj.com.