I met Mitch Braff in a stairwell at the Battery, the swanky San Francisco social club, to look at one of his windows. But to call his company a window manufacturer would not be 100% accurate.
LiquidView, Braff’s startup, is looking to revolutionize windows, one pane at a time, by making them out of high-resolution digital monitors.
The filmmaker and artist got the idea while meeting with a client in a posh home in Pacific Heights, complete with a gorgeous window installation—and a view that just so happened to be blocked by a next-door neighbor’s house.
“Double-hung glass, leaded windows, seven of them,” he recalled. “It was 12 feet across. And you just look right outside, you could just almost touch the side of the neighbor's house.”
That’s when it hit him: These obstructed windows could be an unfettered view of something beautiful. All it took was turning them into, well, not windows.
LiquidView’s monitors play a 24-hour recording of a pastoral scene, complete with sound to fully mimic the feeling of sitting inside a home with a deluxe view.
The technology is ideal, according to its marketing, “for spaces that have no windows, an undesirable view, or where lighting is poor.” LiquidView is backed by angel investors, and Braff is in the process of raising venture capital.
LiquidView has already gotten hype online: A video demonstrating the product received seven million views on Instagram alone—and has resulted in interest as far out as Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, Braff said.
Braff also touts the possible health benefits of LiquidView, tapping Stanford professor Jamie Zeitzer to research whether using his virtual windows could replicate some of the effects of looking at the real deal.
"The picture's beautiful," said Zeitzer, a psychiatrist and co-director at the university’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences. "The question is: Does that beauty match some of the biological effects?"
The idea that this aesthetically pleasing view could improve health outcomes is key: If it indeed does provide these benefits, LiquidView could open up the possibility of turning spaces that don’t—or can’t—have windows into homes with a semblance of a view.
“Our windows look like architecturally designed windows,” Braff said. “It's not like a TV hanging on a wall. So if we can trick our brain into thinking we're actually seeing a window and a view and the sound and it's the ocean, that's very calming for people.”
But the future of windows doesn’t come cheap. And will consumers, let alone architects, buy into the idea that windows can be replaced by more screens?
The digital windows, developed with legendary design house IDEO, show Rodeo Beach, just off the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a stunning view that appears as if it overlooks a beachfront property. In a brief span of the 24-hour recording, there are people walking their dogs, tides gently cresting, sunbeams shining across the beach.
It’s part-art installation, part-prosaic scenery. But it comes at a cost. Installing a three-pane window like the one at the Battery could run around $60,000 to $70,000—about 20 to 25 times the cost of installing an actual three-pane window. But, as Braff explains, you’re paying for the view.
“This takes many, many months,” Braff said, pointing to the Rodeo Beach footage. There’s location scouting—determining which views can stun across day and night (Lake Tahoe, for instance, has a nighttime view that isn’t all too compelling).
There’s also the equipment used to shoot and edit 8K video footage, along with the sheer amount of memory it takes to shoot up to 30 hours of extremely high-quality footage: Up to 50 terabytes of raw footage per scene.
So far, LiquidView has captured views of Central Park in New York City, Lands End and Sausalito, in addition to the Rodeo Beach shore. Views of Aspen and Paris are currently in the works, Braff said, and they plan on releasing a new view monthly.
Once his company amasses enough of these high-definition recordings, he plans to make the recordings into a subscription service for LiquidView window owners down the line—one where users can pick and choose from a library of scenes to view, Netflix-style.
There’s already some interest from architects. Eric Ibsen of San Francisco design firm Forge SF has raised the possibility that the technology could be helpful for city office-to-residential conversions. Dealers in Los Gatos and New York City are already selling the product to clients.
Dan Sider, the chief of staff for San Francisco’s Planning Department, is excited by the possibilities that LiquidView’s windows could unlock.
“This can really open some very interesting new frontiers,” Sider said, in terms of retrofitting existing homes and making otherwise unviable spaces livable. He says that San Francisco could be a veritable testing ground for this technology, with all its “long, skinny buildings” and “long, skinny homes.”
“Why not have something there that creates the illusion of greater light and air? I mean, we're not making anything worse,” Sider said.
However, regulations require every residential dwelling to have windows that face a street or some sort of open area. It’s not just for aesthetics: Buildings require proper ventilation and proper exits in case of an emergency; a screen, even a hyper photorealistic one, can’t replace that.
But there is a universe, Sider says, where the city’s Board of Supervisors could amend that requirement to embrace these windows.
What comes next is uncertain. Could these windows supplement—or supplant—real windows altogether?
San Francisco architect John Lum is wary of the technology, which he admits he hasn't seen himself. He doesn’t think it’s viable for dimly lit homes, let alone for replacing windows altogether.
"There's a certain coldness and falseness that comes with when you're trying to do something that's not really reality,” Lum said. "It sounds like trying to wrap your arms around a computer screen and saying, ‘Oh, this makes me feel so good.’"
Zeitzer, the Stanford researcher, also has doubts about the technology supplanting windows altogether. To him, LiquidView’s screens will always be secondary to “nice, big windows,” but could serve as a nice supplement to dim places or existing structures that lack light, like office spaces and hospitals.
(Lum, despite his reservations, pointed to the medical setting as an ideal place for this technology.)
For now, it’s unlikely that these windows will start quickly popping up in rooms across San Francisco, let alone globally, despite the interest that LiquidView has amassed.
The product itself is costly, and it will take some convincing for people to escape the idea that technology straight out of Total Recall or Back to the Future II is actually a window to the future.
But for Braff, the passion he sees for the product outweighs the detractors.
“Look, if there weren't haters, it wouldn’t have blown up so much, truthfully,” Braff said. “People have thought about this idea for decades, but this is an imitation of it in real life in a way that feels real.”
Joshua Bote can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org