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  • Modern Expeditions Echo the Past

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2013
Karen A. Newman, Group Publisher,

After being turned down for funding by the kings of Portugal and England for a voyage in search of a new route to the spice-rich Orient, Christopher Columbus found the support he needed from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. While he didn’t find Asia, he did discover a continent mostly unknown to Europeans at the time, setting world history on a new course.

Modern-day treks have much in common with Columbus’, from the search for financial support to game-changing potential discoveries. Now a new journey – an inward one into human sight – called Visual Cortex on Silicon is launching with a five-year, $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) award through its Expeditions in Computing program, and the cooperation of eight institutions.

The project’s lead principal investigator is Vijaykrishnan Narayanan, professor of computer science and engineering and electrical engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He said that several institutions have collaborated for years, developing smart camera systems and demonstrating vision systems operating with far greater efficiency than existing approaches.

“With this expedition,” Narayanan said, “we are aiming to leapfrog the intelligence of these vision systems to approach human cognitive capabilities, while being extremely energy-efficient and user-friendly.” You can read the story, “Bioengineers Aim for ‘Visual Cortex on Silicon,’ ” on our website,

From the high seas to how humans see and back again, in this issue of Photonics Spectra, contributing editor Marie Freebody adds to our exploration by unfurling the startup story of Ocean Optics Inc. Mike Morris started his company with Small Business Innovation Research funding to make a sensor for an instrument designed to study the role of oceans in global warming, Freebody reports. In the course of designing the pH-monitoring instrument, Morris and partner Roy Walters sought to incorporate a spectrometer that would fit onto a buoy, but none existed.

“So they invented one and launched a revolution in spectroscopy,” Freebody says.

When asked if products ever fail at the launch stage, Morris replied, “You should always have at least a small group of potential customers in on the development, offering suggestions and committing to buy the product when it’s ready.” Read more of Morris’ entrepreneurial wisdom in the column Photonics Startups, beginning on page 59.

While the goal of every new venture is commercial success, recognition by one’s peers is not a bad milestone. The Prism Awards for Photonics Innovation is one such coequal appraisal. Produced by SPIE and Photonics Media, the annual Prism Awards recognize new products and inventions that break with conventional ideas, solve problems and improve life through the generation and application of the essential technologies of optics and photonics. Finalists for the 2014 Prism Awards, which closes to entry submissions Oct. 11, will be announced in November, and the winners will be named at a gala banquet in February during Photonics West.

Columbus sold his idea, got it funded and discovered a new world. More than 500 years later, we can appreciate his passion and tenacity. Smooth sailing.

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