The Evolution of Smart Mirrors

A “smart mirror” is a mirror with added features and functionalities, with the purpose of incorporating a capability that would otherwise be done manually or in some system other than the mirror. For example, a self-dimming mirror automatically adjusts to ambient light conditions, primarily for safety reasons but also for some measure of user comfort.

Our definition of smart technologies as relevant to mirrors encompasses any kind of mirror that is made intelligent by adding such functionalities in one of two ways: (1) adding layer(s) of smart coatings, or (2) embedding electronics into the mirror

Smart coated mirrors include the following functionalities, in any number of combinations:

Self-dimming: These coatings already has found an established market in automotive mirrors but not really anywhere else. Primarily this technology is electrochromic, although other types of self-dimming technologies are being explored mainly for markets outside of mirrors

Self-cleaning: These are hydrophobic and hydrophilic coatings, which use water (either rinse or rain) to repel or otherwise channel away dirt, dust, inorganic material, etc. from the mirror surface

Self-healing: Several potential systems could apply here, from viscoelastic reflow and microencapsulants to more advanced vascular-based systems. There are challenges in such coatings regarding their complexity of design and implementation, balancing seemingly contradictory properties: strong enough to encapsulate but fragile enough to break, fast-dispersing but also fast-polymerizing

Electronics that can be embedded into mirrors include sensors, displays, cameras, and touch technology, with intelligence enabled through software, algorithms and processing.

Making Mirrors Smart: First Coatings, Now Electronics

Two years have passed since our last report on “smart mirror” products and the technologies behind them, and we seem to be on track with most of what we had predicted:

  • Embedded electronics is critical to more widespread adoption across various end markets (consumer/home, retail, healthcare), and primarily as an information-delivery mechanism. The flip side of this: smart mirrors as defined by responsive coatings (self-dimming, self-cleaning, self-repairing) is less strongly driving future adoption, largely because their mainstay (self-dimming mirrors for automotive) has been a long mature market, with seemingly less velocity for innovation.
  • Multiple functionality within a smart mirror has become more in demand, from self-dimming mirrors made with additional self-cleaning or repair capabilities, to such mirrors adding electronics capabilities (lights, displays, etc.), or even mirrors entirely based on additional electronics functionality.

Self-dimming has long been embraced in vehicle mirrors, although other types of smart capabilities such as self-cleaning and self-healing have yet to really prove their worth.

What has become even more true today is that imbuing the humble mirror with additional smart functionalities is increasingly a conversation about what types of electronics can be embedded within it, often in concert: cameras, displays, touch and gesture recognition, lights, various types of sensors, and some level of processing and algorithms behind the scenes to stitch everything together.

Growth in End Markets: Testing Time

For end markets, smart mirrors are pushing further into the spotlight. Automotive is arguably the only commercial success story for smart mirrors with commonplace use of self-dimming mirrors. Increasingly, the core safety function of a reflective mirror (both internal and external) is being forced to accommodate higher-tech capabilities such as cameras and displays, which is changing the game for suppliers.

Gentex, which supplies the vast majority of self-dimming automotive mirrors, does see some volume growth opportunities for that type of product, which is to say simply getting them into more vehicles than before (currently about 25% of all models for interior mirrors and ~7% for external side mirrors).

But very clearly the future for smart mirrors seems to be less about such responsive coatings, and more about electronics-enabled capabilities: sensing, vision/cameras, displays, touch, aggregating and presenting various information in real-time to the user.

We also are seeing a recent wave of activity in smart mirrors in retail and consumer environments, with some very large brand names now implementing pilot programs. Alongside them are some equally major technology giants—including one that’s attempting to mesh the worlds of e-commerce and retail.

What’s Next for Smart Mirrors: Time to Redefine?

Perhaps the most important trend we’re seeing in smart mirrors is in how the concept of a smart mirror is being brought to market, where the aforementioned combinations of interconnected and networked electronics are in the spotlight, arguably more than the mirror itself.

The latest iterations of smart mirrors suggest that future smart mirrors in many applications might be true mirrors in name only—just another iteration of computers and displays, with new scale and capabilities. In fact, the future of many applications might be evolving where such a mirror is rather an exercise in semantics.

This distinction is illustrated by one vendor’s use of the term digital mirror as a differentiation to what it’s doing, both displays with cameras as well as double-sided mirror with a display.

This suggests the future of smart mirrors might actually be souped-up large computer displays, perhaps with an added reflective surface, in both ways delivering the function of a mirror, which is to say presenting the user a view of his/her surrounding environment. That mirroring function simply becomes one feature among the typical computing-enabled bells and whistles. Indeed, one accepted definition of a “smart mirror” is simply a mirrored TV screen.

This would suggest opportunities rest more with major electronics companies, rather than glass suppliers. And indeed, seeing names like Intel, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, LG, etc. coming out with prototypes of smart mirrors, and/or supporting smart mirror products from others, reinforces this thinking that the future for smart mirrors in many applications may be fulfilled by large interactive computer displays.

Evolving Market, Evolving Landscape

And yet this space still bears close watching. In automotive, it is unclear how things will shake out: will rearview mirrors with embedded displays, and/or bimodal operation, be the preferred “smart mirror” product, largely benefiting Gentex? Or will in-console displays assume this function? And what is the real takeoff for other “smart” mirror adoption, such as self-dimming, turn signals, and other features into external mirrors?

In the other area where smart mirror activity seems to be heating up, retail shopping is undeniably taking a step forward with digital initiatives, ever seeking ways to not only improve the shopping experience, but also to absorb more actionable information about shoppers and ultimately convert them to paying customers.

At some point, there is a line between willing participation in an immersive shopping experience, and crossing over into invasive information gathering.

And while we are encouraged by the level of big-name brand participation in these new smart mirror roll-outs—electronics heavyweights from Intel to Panasonic, and retail brands from Nordstrom to Bloomingdale’s and, reportedly, even Wal-Mart—we must also acknowledge that pilot programs are by definition an experimentation, and not a promise of future expansion.

We note that one company we profiled in our 2013 report, Mirrus, received attention for its deployment of 150 smart mirrors in O’Hare airport bathrooms, as well as a number of collegiate and professional sports stadiums—but they appear to have disappeared just two years later.

In summary, n-tech Research believes we are entering a critical period for smart mirrors, over the next year or two. We are now witnessing the emergence of several high-profile retail applications, which may—or, equally importantly, may not—spur a lot more activity in this sector.

We are also at a crossroads in the automotive market for what the future of “smart” mirrors will be, as suppliers adjust their products and pipelines to accommodate more cameras and other sensor-enabled functions. At the head of this spear, there is likely to be some divergence as to what a “smart mirror” even is, and which companies will stand ready to deliver what individual markets require.