While automotive windows have slowly evolved over the past 100 years or so — starting with laminated and then tempered glass to protect occupants — they haven’t really changed that much. Nor has their purpose of allowing drivers and passengers to see outside as best as possible, while also providing a place to display parking passes, vehicle inspection certificates, and personalized back-glass decals.
Thanks to technology, car windows could become much less transparent and evolve into what marketers call the elusive and lucrative “fifth screen,” alongside TVs, computers, smartphones, and tablets. And serve our insatiable need for content — and as another way to deliver ads.
When I was a kid, I mostly stared out the window on long, boring drives or played Punch Buggy with my brothers until things got out of hand and my parents intervened. Nowadays, kids can be kept quiet and content in the car with smartphones and tablets, and I have to prod my own screen-addicted teens to look outside at what’s around them.
Automakers have developed ways to use a car’s windows to keep kids and others engaged with their surroundings, although none have reached production. In 2011, Toyota showed a concept called Window to the World that allows backseat passengers to draw Etch-A-Sketch-style on a car’s glass, calculate the distance of objects away from the vehicle and zoom in on them for a better view.
A year later, GM debuted a prototype window that passengers can also draw on, displays a cartoon character who moves along with the speed of the car and superimposes augmented reality info about what’s outside. And to help visually impaired passengers enjoy the landscape, Ford’s Feel the View concept uses a camera to capture the scene outside and translate it into haptic feedback to create a tactile, Braille-like representation.
But where there’s a screen, content providers and advertisers see potential eyeballs and revenue, and as automated vehicles become common they also see passenger downtime and dollars to the capture. In fact, a 2016 Ernst & Young report predicted that in-car content streaming could add $20 billion to entertainment industry coffers.
Ted Schilowitz, a futurist for Paramount Pictures, told The Hollywood Reporter last fall that the entertainment industry believes “there’s a lot of real estates” in self-driving cars to project images. “If you look at the windshield and windows, they are screens at the right distance to be entertainment portals,” he added.
In fact, Ford filed a patent in 2016 for an “Autonomous Vehicle Entertainment System” that turns a windshield into a movie screen. AVs are “the next journey for entertainment,” Schilowitz said, adding that “multiple studios are looking at this and meeting with strategic partners.”
Advertising will not only support content as it does with everything from Autoblog to YouTube, but marketers finally will be able to literally drive consumers to purchase their products. “We could deliver interactive, geolocated advertising based on nearby shops, restaurants, and businesses,” Dennis Wharton, executive VP at the National Association of Broadcasters, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Although it doesn’t use the windows as screens, the Mercedes-Benz F 015 self-driving concept that the automaker debuted at CES in 2015 gives a glimpse of this future vehicle utopia or dystopia — depending on your view of technology and long drives. The concept’s lower door panels serve as screens to show everything from movies to messages and also work as virtual windows so that if you’re stuck in a snowstorm in Manhattan it can look like Miami Beach outside.
Of course, no one knows how long it will be before all car occupants can kick back and watch a movie. But it’s a pretty safe bet that as cars become more automated, windows will eventually be used to display data on everything from your surroundings and services available to the latest binge-worthy streaming series.