Optics and photonics are everywhere. Not
just in industrial settings or research environments or the medical arena. Everywhere.
And with each new day, they are becoming more integral to how we live our lives
– at home and at work, at the supermarket, the multiplex and probably even
the county fair. Here we take a look at several areas in which photonics is making
an impact and how the technology is evolving, and at what some of the barriers to
more widespread implementation might be.
Flying off the screen
2010 will surely be remembered as the year that a group of lithe
blue creatures stole the hearts of moviegoers everywhere as the 3-D spectacular
Avatar rolled across the country and around the world.
If all goes well, it will also be remembered as the year that
3-D came to the home viewing market. A number of companies introduced 3-D capable
televisions in 2010, including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio.
LG is just one of several companies that introduced 3-D capable televisions in 2010.
Consumers may not be embracing the technology as rapidly as the industry would like,
however. Courtesy of LG.
Consumers still aren’t entirely sold on 3-D television,
though – because of a relative dearth of programming and also because of the
price of the sets, which remains high. This is especially true in North America,
where consumers have been trained to expect rapid price drops with new technology,
said Paul Gagnon, director of North American TV Research with Santa Clara, Calif.-based
DisplaySearch. Of the 3.2 million 3-D sets forecast to ship in 2010 – in the
market research and consulting firm’s Quarterly TV Design and Features Report
– only 1.6 million would be bought in North America.
Another discouraging finding: Sales of 3-D glasses in Western
Europe remain low. In most countries there, fewer glasses are sold than sets, suggesting
that many households have only the pair that came with the television. A healthy
level would be closer to two pairs per set, DisplaySearch said. The current numbers
point to the possibility that many consumers are simply “future-proofing,”
or that they cannot buy premium sets without 3-D.
Wider availability of content, of course, would help to win over
those currently on the fence about 3-D television. Panasonic understands this and
has worked closely with DirecTV and ESPN, among other providers, to launch 3-D channels.
At the same time, said the company’s Robert Harris at the Vision Show held
in Boston last May, it has encouraged production of 3-D content by developing further
end-to-end solutions: namely, an integrated twin-lens full-high-definition 3-D camera
In addition, a number of movies were released in 3-D Blu-ray this
past holiday season – including the much-anticipated 3-D version of Avatar,
which came bundled with Panasonic 3-D sets and Blu-ray players, and the 3-D Blue-ray
of Alice in Wonderland, available exclusively with Sony 3-D hardware. (Also released
in November: the very first 3-D Blu-ray porn movie. This is actually a good sign
for the industry. Pornography has long been a major driver of technology change
Even as 3-D content becomes more widely available, however, 3-D
television is competing with other platforms offering new formats for TV viewing:
most significantly, connected televisions integrating the Internet into sets and
set-top boxes. More than 40 million integrated television units were forecast to
ship in 2010, with the number increasing to 118 million in 2014.
Lighting up the sky
Laser displays and laser light shows are used to entertain audiences
everywhere, and in a wide range of contexts: from rock concerts and dance performances
to clubs and raves, from family theme parks to the “Laser Pink Floyd”
show at the local planetarium. Design and production of the shows are ever-evolving,
as are the technologies and safety practices used with them.
Laser light shows are growing
ever more sophisticated as the technology used for them continues to evolve. Courtesy
of the International Laser Display Association. Used by written permission. All
Greg Makhov, president of Orlando, Fla.-based Lighting Systems
Design, noted several trends on the technology side: for example, the advent of
a low-cost, high-power blue diode laser. This has had an interesting evolution,
he said, and, “on certain levels, kind of a seedy one”: Casio recently
introduced a video projector based on a blue diode laser source. Hobbyists subsequently
opened it up and found that it contained 24 diode lasers in an array – less
expensive clones of other diodes, he said; it is not yet clear who the manufacturer
Since this discovery, companies have been buying up the Casio
projectors, harvesting the diodes and using them for everything from laser pointers
to laser displays. One company has taken the entire array, already collimated, and
put it into a moving fixture.
The relatively low cost of these diodes has created a bit of a
stir in the laser display industry, Makhov added. “Some people are frothing
at the mouth because of the cost reduction.”
Sources used in laser displays are not just getting cheaper, though.
They are getting smaller and more rugged. Coherent has been leading the charge with
optically pumped semiconductor laser technology, which offers both small size and
minimal technical requirements. Initially offering lasers in the green and yellow
regions of the spectrum, the company expanded into the blue and eventually into
The availability of these lasers is having a significant impact
on the industry. Moving from large, very delicate ion laser sources to smaller,
fan-cooled optically pumped semiconductor laser sources that can be plugged into
the wall is changing how shows are designed, Makhov said. “Now you can literally
put an entire laser show into the back of your car, and you can have multiple, discrete
lasers instead of one big gun.” This is leading to much more creative displays.
Even as the displays grow more creative and sophisticated, the
industry is increasing its focus on safety – especially with respect to audience
scanning, a practice in which lasers are beamed into a crowd during an event. Audience
scanning dates back to the 1970s, the early days of lasers in rock concerts. (The
first instances may have been on Blue Öyster Cult’s “Agents of
Fortune” tour in 1976. During these shows, a lighting engineer would shine
a laser – a raw beam – onto Buck Dharma’s guitar. Dharma would
then aim it at the audience as he played.)
Laser light displays that incorporate audience scanning have a proven safety record. Still,
they are rarely seen in the US. Courtesy of the International Laser Display Association.
Used by written permission. All rights reserved.
However, while the practice has grown ever more popular in the
rest of the world – at clubs and raves, in particular – today it is
rarely seen in the US. The reasons for this are twofold, said Patrick Murphy, executive
director of the International Laser Display Association (ILDA). First, while the
regulations governing the practice are largely the same the world over, they are
more strictly enforced in the US than elsewhere. At the same time, there is a general
culture of litigation and safety precautions in the States. Many who stage laser
light shows fear the potential legal and public relations ramifications should an
An average of only 2.5 incidents
per decade have been reported in the past 30 years for shows using continuous-wave
lasers for audience scanning. During this time, at least 110 million people have
attended the shows. (Injuries have been reported for displays inappropriately using
pulsed lasers – at a 2008 festival outside Moscow, for example.) Even conservatively
accounting for 90 percent underreporting, that would be only 75 incidents over three
decades, says Patrick Murphy of the International Laser Display Association (ILDA). Courtesy
of ILDA. Used by written permission. All rights reserved.
Audience scanning is in fact possible within the maximum permissible
exposure (MPE) established by the FDA. But the effect at these levels is relatively
dim, while the increased beam divergence produces “fuzzy” beams with
soft planes and cones of light. As a result, the overall experience can be considerably
To address this, ILDA has proposed allowing optional “Level
2” audience scanning under specified conditions. This would permit brighter
beams – up to 10 times the nominal MPE – in venues such as clubs and
raves, where patrons already seek out higher risks, including loud music, alcohol
The practice of “audience scanning,” in which lasers are beamed into the
audience, is increasingly popular in the rest of the world but still rarely seen
in the US. The International Laser Display Association has proposed a new category
of audience scanning that it hopes will lead to more such shows in the States. Courtesy
of the International Laser Display Association. Used by written permission. All
In return, Murphy said, venues would be required to post patron
health warning signs (similar to those seen on thrill rides and in alcohol-serving
establishments) and to employ additional laser safety measurements and procedures.
Based on 30 years of laser show safety results, as well as patron-initiated avoidance
procedures, ILDA believes that Level 2 scanning is safe on both an empirical and
a scientific basis.
“The long-term goal is to have this concept recognized by
standards and regulatory bodies,” Murphy said. Until then, as ILDA points
out, Level 2 scanning can be used as an informal working procedure. “Those
in charge of shows, such as club/rave venue owners and laser show producers, can
together determine whether they are comfortable with the higher power and more stringent
safety requirements of Level 2 shows. If so, then they can go ahead with such a
The association believes that Level 2 will significantly improve
safety with respect to current club- and rave-type shows, which are often 50 to
100 times the MPE. Murphy adds that anyone not comfortable with the higher levels
– theme parks and family attractions, for example – can continue to
produce Level 1 shows below the established MPE.
ILDA has not yet made any formal proposal regarding the two-level
audience scanning. The association will likely do so at the 2011 International Laser
Safety Conference, Murphy said.
Shimmering like Princess Leia
For most of us, the original Star Wars movie – released
some 33 1/2 years ago – offered the first-ever glimpse of dynamic holography: In an early
scene, the droid R2-D2 projects a shimmering, three-dimensional recording of Princess
Leia imploring Obi-Wan Kenobi to aid in her struggle against the evil Empire.
Researchers have reported a three-dimensional holographic imaging
technology that can be used for an array of applications. Shown here is principal
investigator Nasser Peyghambarian with a refreshable holographic image of an F-4
Phantom Jet (detail, left) created on a photorefractive polymer at the University
of Arizona College of Optical Sciences in Tucson. Courtesy of Norma Jean Gargasz/
Unfortunately, in the decades since, we have seen little in the
way of real technology matching the sort depicted in the movie. “Holographic
stereography has been capable of providing excellent resolution and depth reproduction
on large-scale 3-D static images,” Pierre-Alexandre Blanche and colleagues
wrote in the Nov. 4, 2010, issue of Nature, “but has been missing dynamic
updating capability until now.”
In a paper featured on the cover of that issue, the researchers
– a team at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences led by professor
Nasser Peyghambarian – described a holographic imaging technology that can
record a three-dimensional image in one location and show it in another. The projection
refreshes every two seconds and thus offers a 3-D moving image much like that seen
in Star Wars all those years ago.
The technology, referred to as three-dimensional telepresence,
does not require special eyewear such as 3-D glasses or any other auxiliary devices.
Rather, it takes advantage of a screen made from a novel photorefractive
polymer; the Oceanside, Calif.-based company Nitto Denko Technical provided the
polymer sample and media preparation. An array of cameras records images of an object
from different perspectives and sends them to the hologram setup via an Ethernet
connection – across the room or across the country. There, a fast-pulsed laser
beam writes the information into the photorefractive polymer, each pulse recording
an individual “hogel,” or holographic pixel.
Shown are pictures of a hologram recorded with the 3-D telepresence
system. This technology is featured on the Nov. 4, 2010, cover of Nature. Courtesy
of Blanche et al, Nature.
While the device reported in the Nature
paper uses a 10-in. screen,
the researchers are already testing a version with a 17-in. screen. Also, they have
already demonstrated multicolor 3-D display devices – the device described
presents in only one color – with a much faster refresh rate, which
enables considerably smoother transitions between images. They noted that it won’t
be long before they can incorporate these devices into the telepresence setup.
The researchers cited a number of potential applications of holographic
telepresence, including advertising, updatable 3-D maps, entertainment and telemedicine.
The latter requires improvements in both the 3-D display and the Internet communication
technologies, Peyghambarian said in an e-mail. The display needs to be expanded
from the current 17 in. to 6 to 8 ft, and in addition requires full color, and fast
writing and display speeds. Telemedicine applications would also benefit from higher
To handle information delivery for such applications, the Internet
communication component must be able to handle a data rate of several gigabits at
Work toward these goals is progressing rapidly, Peyghambarian
said. With respect to the Internet communications component, he and the others on
his team are focusing on access aggregation networks and trying to enable high-bit-rate
access to users at low cost. At the same time, they are developing a packaged large-area
3-D optical holographic display with full color and fast response.