November 14, 2017 - From the November, 2017 issue

Transforming the Built Environment: Electronically Conductive Paint

Visionaries seeking to transform our cities’ built environments through smart homes, smart architecture, and smart building will need to look at all materials and mediums—including printed electronics. At the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in Los Angeles last month, Bare Conductive CEO and Co-Founder Matt Johnson shared the company’s new electrically conductive paint and sensor hardware. With an introduction by Clare DeBriere, chair of ULI-Los Angeles, Johnson’s remarks—excerpted here—address the challenges to implementing new technology and describe an open source approach to transforming the built environment.


Matt Johnson

"The most exciting thing we can do is not retrofit our sensors into spaces, but actually apply our sensing technology into common building materials at the point of manufacture." -Matt Johnson, Bare Conductive

Clare DeBriere (Chair, Urban Land Institute-Los Angeles): Having been a developer in L.A. for my entire career, my new company is based on inspiring creativity and curiosity. Today, I want to feature tech innovators who think differently about what we do every day. Using technology in a way that we never thought possible, Matt Johnson of Bare Conductive has pushed all of us to think more creatively about how to use electronic technology in our buildings and businesses. 

Matt Johnson (CEO, Bare Conductive):How can we take a humble technology—a paint—and use it to get all the way to smart buildings? That seems like a strange jump to a lot of people. But in fact, we have made an electrically conductive paint.

You may not know it, but you’re already interacting with conductive inks every day. If you have a smartphone or a laptop, it’s very likely that somewhere in that device is a piece of printed circuitry. It’s a field called printed electronics. The companies supplying conductive ink form about a $400 million market in the U.S.

Even though these materials are already being produced, I don’t think existing companies are very good at finding their true end value. Our open approach toward innovation has driven a ton of value because we’ve found applications for printed electronics that other companies never imagined.

This paint has a lot more going on than this simple property of conducting electricity. Its physical form means that it could work as a glue, or you could spray it, stencil it, dip it, or use it as a resistor or sensor. You can basically do anything with this material. This is very exciting.

When we created this, initially, everyone agreed it was pretty cool, but none of us had any idea what to do with it. That should be totally disabling for a new business. But in fact, in the presence of the internet, it’s a pretty powerful proposition. We were interested in creating a community to help us figure out what this technology was about. We think this is a pretty contemporary approach.

We sold a lot of product to a company that has made buttons, switches, sensors, glues, and all sorts of things. But when they brought our technology to their area of expertise, they found applications to problems that we never could have anticipated. We had engineers calling us and saying, “I think this solves this hyper-specific problem that is really valuable to me.” We did that not by pitching, but by convincing that engineer to become an advocate for us.

There are three pillars to our open approach: communication, information, and accessibility. What does our community look like? The maker community is artists, designers, engineers, teachers, and students, who all want to make things. Sometimes they do things that are funny and trivial, like light-up clothing for dogs. Sometimes they do things that are a bit more exciting, like interactive books and posters. They do really sophisticated things as well, like using our materials to shield X-rays in radioactive experiments. The range of outputs we’ve seen from the community is incredible.

If you thought that electrically conductive inks or paints might solve some specific problem, you could call Dupont or Henkel. But unless you had an existing scale of profitable application, it’s unlikely that you’d get much attention from them. (I say that because we’ve tried to get their attention, and they haven’t responded.) That makes sense, because their business is built on finding existing, profitable applications, and scaling them.

We think the best way to find value in this technology is to act like humans: pick up the phone, respond to emails, and be extremely communicative with everyone who calls us, because we don’t know what’s coming down the pipe. We want to provide good information that meets a technical standard set by the industry, but is also accessible to anyone who wants to look at it. Accessibility is the core of our work with the community: We want to develop a language and a presentation that speaks to everyone as if it were designed exactly for them.

BareConductive is like 3M plus the App Store. We’ve all used Post-It notes or flown in an aircraft that uses 3M adhesives. 3M uses fundamental material innovation to deliver value, but they have never opened up their innovation to a wider range of audiences. By contrast, Apple’s App Store allows anyone to create value on its hardware platform. We think a combination of these two approaches could deliver something pretty powerful. We want people to develop their own value on top of our product.

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The first time we saw that this approach could work was with a project with a creative agency based in the UK. They created a postcard—just a piece of paper printed with our paint— that they plugged into a black box. When you touch a play button on the postcard, it plays a whole album. You can change tracks or change the volume.

This project showed us that people loved the idea of an electronic interface that wasn’t overtly electronic. It also showed us that, if done correctly, our paint could become so cheap to produce that you could actually give it away. This company gave away thousands of postcards, and people absolutely loved them.

Finally, this project showed us that BareConductive couldn’t just produce paint. Paint is a bit like a spool of copper wire: Without something to plug it into on either end, it’s not super exciting. We realized that we could add value by building the hardware as well.

Start at the bottom of the technology stack. Paint can do something simple, or it can light an LED. This property is called capacitive sensing. Capacitive sensing is not new: The touchscreen on your smartphone and the touchpad on your laptop use it. But we’re doing it very differently, on a large scale. Our community has painted sensors into the environment, essentially creating operational buttons that can play songs, transfer data, or make something move. The paint plus the hardware is a compelling and powerful combination.

You could hide the sensor under other non-conductive objects. Imagine, for example, putting it under a carpet. We would know where someone is in a room, or how many people are in the room. Or we could put the sensor into a wall, and turn the entire wall into a light switch—or into an interactive, intelligent surface. We could integrate the sensor into architecture.

Obviously, there is the very serious problem of how to scale this technology. The way we’ve found to do that is through printing. Printing is precise, scalable, and cheap. Precision is important: Our sensing technique can detect things as small as an insect, to the size of a person, to large bodies of liquid. When we produce a pad of paint, we’re generating an electromagnetic field, and the field’s shape is derivative of the shape we paint. The shape of what we print totally determines the performance of a sensor.

We can also use printing technology to create electronics at a huge scale. We can print sensors and increase their size without either increasing their cost or compromising the resolution. That allows us to cover entire spaces with sensors. We could embed sensors underneath the floor or behind the wall in order to start to understand people’s use of space—for example, we might be interested in how to optimize the space for energy efficiency reasons. In an elderly care situation, we might be interested in detecting a fall, or detecting the events that might lead up to a fall. Or we might just be interested in doing something exciting, like turning a wall into a light switch. The apps that people are building on top of our technology are getting really exciting.

We want to go one step beyond this. The most exciting thing we can do is not retrofit our sensors into spaces, but actually apply our sensing technology into common building materials at the point of manufacture. Sheetrock and plywood, for example, are made very similarly to the printing process, and that affords us the opportunity to incorporate our technology at a feasible cost. Now, we’re working with large corporations to take that technology stack and help build smart home products to create inherently intelligent spaces.

We’re using a community to help us apply what could have been a trivial material to large, scalable projects like smart homes, smart architecture, and smart building. We think if we do that correctly, we will be able to provide intelligence to every surface in every space, at a cost that is feasible. In other words, we could create embedded architectural intelligence. Our dream is to start creating smart buildings from the ground up, rather than retrofitting dumb buildings with smart technology.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.