Monday, January 28, 2013

The dangers of photonics

As I get ready to write the March "Photonics Applied: Defense & Security" feature article for Laser Focus World on whether terahertz scanners used at airports and in cargo facilities are really safe, I'm reminded that photonics has a darker, dangerous side. After all, laser weapons do exist, laser dazzlers can disable a human from a distance, fluorescent nanoparticle toxicity is still under investigation, pointing green lasers in aircraft cockpits is a punishable offense, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) roam the skies posing as birds and insects.

The dangers--whether real or media hype--are definitely in the public spotlight. Check out this alarmist video on YouTube about how the government plans to install "scanners" at airports and sporting events that can learn everything about you, from what you had for breakfast to identifying traces of explosives and narcotics (the video link is in case the video doesn't play in the space below due to some unforeseen Laser Focus World Blogger program glitch).

Real or hype? Unfortunately or not (depending on your conspiracy viewpoint), the claims are becoming quite real. Standoff molecular detection is real, and companies like Genia Photonics (Laval, QC, Canada) are developing picosecond programmable lasers and master oscillator power amplifier (MOPA) technologies used in coherent anti-Stokes Raman scattering (CARS) spectroscopy that are designed precisely for learning everything about the molecular makeup of a distant object.

If people think Facebook was designed for "data mining" its customers, CARS spectroscopy could certainly gather more data about your food likes and dislikes for a localized population than could any software program. And CARS doesn't lie; how many people on Facebook put in fake information specifically because they don't want to be "targeted". But is standoff detection really wrong? Personally, I think it could be beneficial because data mining could help decide, for example, which fast food restaurants or which Starbucks items should be prominent at the airport. But if I were to get a text telling me where I could grab my favorite Whopper sandwich when I land next at JFK, that might be a problem for me.

Privacy seems to be a thing of the past, and technology--much of it related to photonics and optics advances--has made population as well as individual monitoring possible. And are all of these wireless signals and lightwaves traversing our personal space safe and secure? Maybe there really is a link to cell phone use and cancer? Are the long-term effects of standoff detection well understood? I'm hoping to shed some light on the terahertz scanner safety issues in my next article, and will continue reporting on the possible dangers associated with the industry's seemingly innocuous photonics advances.

I used to think that out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, I was immune from "Big Brother is Watching" worries (not that I have anything to hide). But that dragonfly and tarantula hawk I saw the other day were just a little too mechanical looking and hung around just a little too long....

Friday, January 25, 2013

A new tool for prototyping flexible photonics

Thanks to efforts by researchers at North Carolina State University, creating and developing prototype flexible photonics devices will become much easier.1 The NC State crew has created an extremely flexible and stretchable electrical wire that can be cut with a pair of scissors and then electrically and mechanically reattached simply by holding the ends together. Even more exciting, the wire ends can be cut at angles and pressed together in different combinations to form 2D and 3D networks for stretchable sensing arrays (medical and otherwise), wearable displays, and so on (limited only by your imagination, as they say).

(Image courtesy of NC State)

The wires consist of liquid metal within microchannels made of a self-healing polymer (see video for demo). The gallium-based conductive alloy at the wire's center is liquid at room temperature and, unlike mercury, is nontoxic. The wires should provide a simple way of 1) wiring up prototypes, 2) realizing you want these wires to go here, not there, and 3) spending a few seconds rewiring. And, considering that the NC State group has created wires of this type that can stretch eight times their original length, the resulting prototype can be very stretchable indeed.2

When cut, the gallium alloy forms an oxide surface at the wire's end that contains the gallium until wires are reattached. Another advantage of these wires; they can be made more conductive (by increasing the microchannel's inner diameter) without reducing their stretchiness, unlike other stretchable wires that have a solid conductor.

“Because we’re using liquid metal, these wires have excellent conductive properties,” says Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State. “And because the wires are also elastic and self-healing, they have a lot of potential for use in technologies that could be exposed to high-stress environments.”


1. Etienne Palleau et al., Advanced Materials, published online Jan. 18, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/adma.201203921

2. Shu Zhu et al., Advanced Functional Materials, published online: Dec. 13, 2012; DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201202405

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013: Laser markets, trends, analysis

“Global headwinds” is a fair description of current economic conditions. Yet as our Annual Laser Market Review and Forecast points out, laser technology is now so mature, economically important, and advantageous in so many applications that long-term sales predictions for most segments remain strong.

In this year’s Market Review, senior editor Gail Overton, working with our research colleague Allen Nogee at Strategies Unlimited and David Belforte at Industrial Laser Solutions, writes that the 2013 global laser market will rise 3% from 2012, with segments such as micromaterials processing, instrumentation and sensors, and medical lasers leading the growth. To download a copy of this January article, click HERE.

Our annual market review articles continue to be one of the most popular articles on our web site and for years have helped the lasers and photonics community understand the underlying technology drivers and application directions.

Let us know what you think about 2013 in person at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco, February 2-7 (Booth 800, South Hall). To read our preview of the show, click HERE.

For much more analysis and data on the markets, please join us in San Francisco on February 4, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar with speakers such as keynote Valentin Gapontsev from IPG Photonics.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In-air touch-enabled display

A hovering display that happens to double as a room humidifier has been created by Displair (Astrakhan, Russia); to produce the in-air effect, a computer image is projected on a thin, upwardly streaming layer of air infused with microscopic water particles. Aided by gesture technology similar to that in Microsoft's Kinect, the user can navigate the screen simply by touching the air layer (see video below). The display was previewed to the public at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2013 (January 8 to 11; Las Vegas, NV).

The water droplets in the stream are so small that fingers stay dry, according to Displair. The company says the display will be available initially in the U.S. later in 2013 and is aimed at high-end consumers, health-care professionals, education, hotels, clubs, restaurants, and digital advertisers. The company received a $1 million round of funding in May 2012 from the Leta Group, a Russian investment and new-products management company.

Although no Laser Focus World editor could make it to CES to see the demo, the display appears to use a conventional 2D projector (sorry, no 3D capabilities!) that projects onto the screen either from the front or the back. Projection from the back (perhaps at an angle to avoid glare) would be preferred so that the user's shadow does not become the display's primary feature.

(This video was provided by Displair and was not taken at CES)

Fog and mist displays have been around for decades in the form of laser light shows combined with fogmaking equipment; more recently, a company called FogScreen has created large (up to 2.4 m) flog-flow light-projection screens.  What the Displair has that the other lacks is the touch capability, which, when combined with the small size, serves as a novelty replacement for a touch computer screen.

(In addition to user-friendliness, the touch capability does show that the technology is safe and benign. Other "hovering image" technologies, such as one developed at UCLA, are very impressive, but are based on mirrors spinning at high speed -- not something you'd want to touch.)

(Source: Marketwire)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Would you "iRobot" with Jules?

The iRobot (Bedford, MA) floor cleaners (promoted on the "iRobot, do you?" television commercials) and even the service robots such as display-bearing office-assistant robots like EMIEW2 from Hitachi (Tokyo, Japan) that bring a video computer into your cubicle for a chat with a long-distance colleague aren't very scary. But have you seen the humanoid robot named "Jules"? If not, take a look at this video on the Vision Systems Design video player ( as creator David Hanson from Hanson Robotics says goodbye to Jules:

Jules was designed by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, and you can watch a more educational video here at for the details.

The videos were brought to my attention by a colleague who sent them around with the email title "Technology gets really, really creepy". After feeling creeped out myself, I sent it around to a few friends to get their impressions, and found a surprising array of responses from both technology-focused and not-so-technology-focused folks (the responses are "anonymous" to protect the at-times-disturbing viewpoints--depending on who you ask). Here are those unvarnished, anonymous responses after watching Jules in action:

1. Not someone to have a beer with after work.

2. Wow! I know where Mitt Romney really comes from.

3. As long as they are friendly it's rather funny.

4. Can you imagine waking up and seeing him in the corner staring at you with that impish grin?

5. One step closer to Blade Runner.

6. You know, that's not a bad looking robot. And so well mannered. Do you think I could get the girl version? Not Jules- Julia? With a full head? I'm particularly interested in one with an off switch like this one had. Are they available on Amazon?

7. (Reply to item 6) Tell your buddy to watch this. And never, ever tell me if he orders one. :)

Item 8 (which was a reply to item 7) is really not appropriate for general audiences. And if you're still curious about these humanoid robots and want to see some of the creepiest, go to Here are a few:

The photo below shows professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan, with the Geminoid robot he created in his likeness; which is which (or should I say who is who)?

There is also Geminoid-DK, a tele-operated Android in the geminoid series made to appear as an exact copy of its master, asc. professor Henrik Scharfe of Aalborg University in Denmark. Again, who is who?

According to some of the news reports, Jules has high-resolution cameras in his eyes so he can track a person and lock onto them to have a serious conversation. No doubt machine vision and gesture recognition advances will help the robots of the future be even more "animated" than once thought possible. Throw some neural networks in the mix and you've got a scary combination! Technology is great in my opinion, but I agree wholeheartedly that it can be entirely creepy as well. As science fiction truly comes to life, who knows how many of these humanoids are out on the streets walking around with us? And creepier still, just what are their intentions?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Top photonics articles in 2012 point to 2013

The top 10 most-read photonics articles in 2012 help predict the hottest topics in 2013: for example, bio-optics, fiber lasers, laser market analysis, military lasers, terahertz technology, and mobile apps. I can think of a few more topics that would be on anyone's list, but these articles from 2012--in order of popularity--should help you ring in the New Year:

1. MEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF FIBER-OPTICS: Optical fiber sees growth as medical sensors

2. 2012 ANNUAL REVIEW AND FORECAST: Economic aftershocks keep laser markets unsettled

3. DIODE-PUMPED SOLID-STATE LASERS: Laser dazzlers are deployed

4. FIBER LASERS: The state of the art

5. OPTICAL DATA STORAGE: Holographic data storage uses volumetric crystal media

6. Sandia laser-guided bullet prototype can hit small targets a mile away

7. Terahertz microchip could let cell phones see through walls

8. How to measure relative intensity noise in lasers

9. FLIR intros thermal imaging camera app for iPad and iPhone

10. 2011 ANNUAL REVIEW AND FORECAST: Skies may be clearing, but fog still lingers

If you're looking for the very latest laser market numbers and more insights into these technologies and products from industry leaders, please join us at the 25th Annual Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar, February 4, in San Francisco during SPIE Photonics West.