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To make a difference, 5G has to be everywhere. One company is designing it to be invisible.

Gorilla Glass maker Corning is designing thoughtful devices for the future of communication.

Lee Webb sitting at a desk, drawing on a tablet

Corning designer Lee Webb works at home on new products, with a 3D printer nearby for rapid prototyping.

Photo: Courtesy of Corning

Have you ever considered what goes into designing a cell phone tower?

Other than those that are supposed to be trees — and totally don't fool anyone — cell tower manufacturers have tended to not try to blend them into their surroundings. Traditionally, cell sites have either been pushed to the outskirts of towns on tall towers or put on top of buildings, hopefully out of eyesight of anyone likely to complain of them being an eyesore. But with 5G on the horizon for many towns, that may well have to change.

Unlike previous generations of wireless connectivity technology, to realize the full promise of 5G, towns are going to need towers all over. They'll have to be smaller and closer together than previous generations, but that ubiquity will lead to increased download speeds and far smaller latencies than any prior generation could provide. That in turn could revolutionize the way we communicate and move things around the world. And with 5G infrastructure spend expected to nearly double this year alone, the company now best known for making the glass on smartphone screens thinks it may have a solution.

Corning is working on a new line of 5G products called Evolv that are meant to be easy to use — and easy on the eyes. As cells move closer and closer to the consumer and away from giant towers, the company argues that designing something as considered as a consumer's cell phone is going to be increasingly important.

Corning sees 5G products as the latest in a long evolution of its glass and ceramics products. It started out, nearly 170 years ago, constructing the glass covers for lights at railroad switches, moved into making Pyrex glassware (a division it sold in the '90s), catalytic converters and fiber optic cables in the '70s, and then into radio dishes and other communications devices. "We've been glass and ceramics as key core materials for a long time, but exactly what we make can really change," Dave Loeber, Corning's program lead for 5G, told Protocol. "We now actually make our own radios for indoor networks."

"All of the gear that we've got these days is pushing closer and closer to the customer," Loeber said of Corning's networking gear, which was part of the impetus for more actively considering how these products looked.

"We have to think much more about [whether that] should change the way that we design things," Loeber said. "Instead of a highly trained technician up on a tower someplace that they're only going to once a year, now it's going to be maybe a customer trying to plug in something themselves, or something that they look at all the time."

That led Loeber, along with Corning's brand experience team, to consider how to design industrial products that regular people, rather than engineers, might have to see or interact with all the time. Lee Webb, who helps manage the brand and product experience for optical products at Corning, wanted to create a sense that the company's products were "timeless and highly functional." Previously, Webb said, many products at Corning didn't have a consistent theme or design, but given that few people were ever going to see them, that probably wasn't as important as it now is.

Corning's new Evolv 5G multiport device is meant to be better-looking while remaining easy to use.Photo: Courtesy of Corning

Webb and his team took a range of approaches to designing their first 5G products, making prototypes out of wood and foam and using 3D printers to rapidly iterate on designs. The end result was a product they're calling the Evolv, a 5G multiport device that's meant to be able to be installed in a range of outdoor spaces, like telephone poles or the sides of buildings, without being particularly intrusive or confusing. "One of the things I really like about the Evolv set we're launching is that we've built in some usability and functionality," Webb said. "You can easily understand which port is aligned to what button without having to bend your neck down and around and look at the bottom."

The team considered how people will interact with the product, including how easy it is to fix something on it if you're an engineer wearing gloves, and several ways to mount the device, so it can easily blend in wherever it is. 5G devices could end up being as ubiquitous as street lamps or Wi-Fi routers inside, to ensure a blanket of coverage wherever you are, and you don't want them to be obtrusive, as many early Wi-Fi and small cell routers often are. Corning didn't want to give off the robot insect vibe that many networking products consumers can see. "Looking like a venomous spider would probably be a negative," Loeber said.

Corning said that increasingly, it's looking to build products that do more than the bare minimum, both in terms of client briefs and their product design. "The key here is interpreting user insights — historically we've tended to take whatever the customer said, and we do just that," Webb said. "But what we're trying to do more now is take what they said, understand why they said it, what's driving those factors, interpret that into insights that we can execute."

Increasingly, the clients Corning is working for are also starting to think about their infrastructure products' aesthetics in the same way they would consumer-facing devices. "It's OK for telco gear to be ugly: those days have passed," Dayne Wilcox, Corning's head of brand experience for optical communications, said. "It's kind of this tidal wave shift of perception of expectation, and that's not only the end customers, but also the big carriers."

"We know from external studies that people are actually more likely to overlook any small advantages a competitor might have if your product looks and feels fully refined and considered," Webb added.

5G, especially in the U.S., is still in its infancy. Most carriers have so far just started to roll out their networks, which in many cases have involved 4G/5G hybrids and adding new antennas to existing towers. Even with the pandemic keeping many people inside, the drive to increase coverage has continued. AT&T, for example, launched its higher-speed millimeter wave offering in March, and these are the types of networks that are going to need devices placed more ubiquitously to guarantee connection. And if Corning has its way, they're going to blend into the background a lot more than those fake cell tower trees.
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