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  • The Tech of Tomorrow, But Not Really
Feb 2011
'Vapor' Photonics

By Gary Boas

I always assumed that, by the second decade of the 21st century, I would have a jet pack, a robot valet and a flying car that folded into a suitcase I could take to my desk at work. As it turns out, I don’t have any of these. Life is filled with disappointment.

All kinds of awesome technologies are dreamed up, designed and eventually ushered into development. Some actually come to fruition, albeit decades after we initially expected them. (Hello, Skype-videophone.) Others never really make it past the “omigoshwhatagreatidea” stage. Still others, after years of toil and trouble and tinkering, are unleashed upon the world only to be met with … silence, barely stifled yawns, a complete and utter lack of interest.

Photonics technologies are by no means immune to issues that might arise during development, or to the fickleness of consumers and the whims of the marketplace; all kinds of things can go wrong even with the best of ideas. This got me to wondering: What laser-based devices never came to pass or, for one reason or another, fell by the wayside? What other awesome technologies don’t I have?

To get a better sense of this, I called Bob Hess, a holographer and laser enthusiast in San Jose, Calif. Hess, who works for SBG Labs in Sunnyvale, contributed an excellent article to the December issue of Photonics Spectra describing some of the prizes of his vintage laser collection (Also see: A Blast from the Past: Highlights of a Vintage Laser)

Arthur Schawlow. (Image: AP)

We talked about a variety of laser-based products that never quite got off the ground. The most intriguing of these, perhaps, was Art Schawlow’s laser eraser. In the 1960s, Schawlow, a laser pioneer who shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in that area, came up with the idea to attach a laser to a typewriter. If you made an error while clacking away, you could simply press a button, and the laser would completely vaporize the dark — and therefore light-absorbing — letters.

This wasn’t just a pet project. Hess later sent me a link to a July 1968 article from Time magazine — “Technology: The Power & Potential of Pure Light” — noting that Schawlow had built and would soon market a laser eraser. He demonstrated a prototype to the reporter and, indeed, the latter wrote, it eliminated entirely the unwanted letters, “leaving the paper unscarred and with no rubbing to be brushed away.”

History doesn’t record, it seems, what became of the technology. We know it never achieved the status of, say, Wite-Out, but we don’t know why Schawlow ultimately pulled the plug. For what it’s worth, I suppose, a few short decades later, the typewriter itself would become largely obsolete.

This particular idea exemplifies the early notion that the laser was a solution in search of a problem, and the fact that some of the problems it found proved a tiny bit whimsical (in the Time article, Schawlow is quoted as saying, mostly presciently, that, in no more than 20 years' time, the laser would be a common tool “in the office, in the factory and in the home, where it could be used for peeling potatoes.”)

Hess noted, however, that many early ideas for the laser were good ideas replaced by better ones as the technology improved. One example: laser communication through evacuated pipes, using a precarious system of mirrors, etc. Hess refers to a 16-mm educational film strip from the 1960s that describes this as a model of future communications, and even shows a system of pipes laid out by Bell Labs.

It turns out laser communication through pipes wasn’t the future. But today we have nearly ubiquitous fiber optic communications. So the idea was right; it’s just, the technology wasn’t yet there.

The LaserDisc never quite caught on the way the DVD eventually would. (Image: Polygoon Hollands Nieuws)

Consider also the LaserDisc. (For the youngsters out there: The LaserDisc was a home video format the size of an LP record, where the audio and video were read by a laser. The LP record … well, you’ll just have to look that up.) Although it offered superior quality to VHS videotapes — the competing technology in the eighties and early nineties — the LaserDisc was not without flaws. It was bulky and more easily damaged than the videotape, and it had mechanical limitations — leading to more noise generated, for example.

Manufacturers began to work through some of these issues as diode lasers became more common — early LaserDisc players used HeNe lasers — but by then other, smaller formats were beginning to take hold. “The technology miniaturized so quickly,” Hess said. “I think the product lifetime just burned out.”

I never did get one of those.  

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