Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:04 pm
Johnson Controls International plc
Innovation: GLAS smart thermostat
FoundeR: Warren Johnson
To say Johnson Controls International plc has a long history with thermostats is a bit of an understatement. Warren Johnson, the company’s founder, patented the “electric tele-thermoscope” in 1883. The device became known as the electric room thermostat and helped launch an industry.
So as smart devices become more ubiquitous in everyday life, it only makes sense that Johnson Controls would have an offering in the growing smart thermostat market.
“It’s our heritage and our birthmark,” said Don Albinger, who recently retired as vice president and general manager of global controls for JCI. “We believe we had a rightful place and a birthright.”
The GLAS smart thermostat that JCI unveiled in early 2018 uses Windows 10 IoT Core, Microsoft Azure and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 410E platform. Albinger said the level of processing power included in the product had not previously been put in a thermostat.
“The technology in there is like a cell phone,” he said
Johnson Controls began shipping GLAS units in late August. At $319, it is more expensive than some of the other models available from competitors, many of which range from $150 to $250.
“When you look at the embedded technology of all the sensors that we have … there’s value there,” Albinger said.
In addition to temperature, GLAS has sensors for total volatile organic compounds and equivalent carbon dioxide, allowing it to provide real-time indoor air quality reporting. It also provides outdoor air quality information, including allergens, UV index and air pollution.
And the device is designed with Microsoft Cortana voice assistant and can work with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Getting to the point at which the company could launch a premium product that goes beyond a wall thermostat took some time. Albinger said about two years elapsed from the initial ideation for GLAS to final product development. He called that a reasonably fast timeline, but also acknowledged the challenges of product development in a crowded space with rapidly advancing technology.
One of the key initial decisions was deciding on an operating system for the device. JCI went with Windows 10 IoT Core in part because of existing relationships the company has with Microsoft, along with the system’s voice recognition and cybersecurity capabilities.
“We had to make that foundational decision,” Albinger said.
GLAS, however, is also capable of working with other smart home systems, like Google Assistant and Alexa. Albinger said those offerings were important to avoid the product being segmented into a smaller market.
“It’s a big world out there from a connectivity perspective,” he said. “We always knew that we had to connect into the ecosystem.”
In addition to its features, JCI’s consumer research suggested appearance and aesthetics were areas where GLAS could be differentiated from competitor products. That led to softer lines and the creation of a translucent OLED screen that helps the device blend into walls, whether they are brick, painted or covered in wallpaper.
Albinger said the development of GLAS was mostly driven by JCI’s Milwaukee-area operations, while also drawing on the company’s global design centers.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of thermostat engineers figuring this out, believe me,” he said.
Johnson’s original device used an electrical circuit with one end in a small pool of mercury. As the temperature rose and fell, the wire moved in and out of the mercury, controlling the electrical circuit and the room damper.
Translucent screens, connected sensors and voice controls are a long way from that initial invention.
“It is truly the most modern thermostat or wall device in the world,” Albinger said.