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New York Times

These materials have the potential to make science fiction a reality

Imagine moving your hands in the air to operate a computer, as Tony Stark does with “Iron Man.” Or, use your smartphone to magnify the object, similar to the device Harrison Ford characters use in “Blade Runner.” Or, next-generation video conferencing that allows you to view 3D avatars using augmented reality glasses. Or the generation of self-driving cars that can be safely driven in urban traffic. These advances and many others on the horizon can occur due to metamaterials, allowing computer chips to control light rays as easily as controlling electricity. The term metamaterial refers to a wide class of manufactured materials that are composed of structures that are finer than the wavelengths of visible light, radio waves, and other types of electromagnetic radiation. Together, they are now giving engineers extraordinary control in designing new types of ultra-cheap sensors, from telescope lenses to infrared thermometers. Sign up for The Morning Newsletter for the New York Times. “We’re in the consumer phase of metamaterials,” said Silicon Valley consulting firm Terabit Corp. Alan Huang, Chief Technology Officer of Nokia Bell Labs, is a year at Nokia Bell Labs. “It goes far beyond cameras and projectors and will lead us to unexpected things. It’s really a dream field.” The first consumer product to take advantage of cheap metamaterials is smartphones, which improves performance. However, the ability to control light waves in new ways will soon enable products such as augmented reality glasses that overlay computerized images in the real world. The technology itself is not new. In the early 19th century, French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel proposed the idea of ​​flattening and reducing the weight of optical lenses by focusing light using a series of concentric grooves. An important innovation behind metamaterials is that they are built with subcomponents smaller than the wavelength of the radiation type that the metamaterial is designed to manipulate. For example, to create a lens from a metamaterial, slice the silicon (simply glass) thin enough to make it transparent. The structure can then be embedded in a thin glass layer that focuses the passing light. One of the first to realize the commercial potential of metamaterials was Nathan Myhrvold, a physicist who was formerly responsible for Microsoft Research. “It was pretty controversial when I first got into this,” Myhrvold said. “There was a scientist who said it was all two-tiered.” Since then, Myhrvold has set up a half-dozen company based on metamaterial technology. Some of these companies are pursuing the consumer optics market, including Lumotive, a Seattle-based company that develops lidar imaging systems without moving parts. Lidar uses a laser to create an accurate map of surrounding objects up to a distance of hundreds of yards. Lidar is widely used by companies developing self-driving cars, and today most are mechanical systems that rotate laser beams at high speeds to create maps. In contrast, Lumotive uses LCD technology originally developed for flat panels to “steer” a beam of laser light. The resulting system is much cheaper than a mechanical rider and can be considered in a variety of new applications such as drones, self-driving cars, and mobile home robots such as intelligent vacuum cleaners. As the automotive industry is crowded with many LIDAR manufacturers, Lumotive officials are refocusing on new markets for home and industrial robots. They haven’t announced their customers yet. Bill Colleran, CEO and co-founder of Lumotive, said: Another company looking to harness the potential of metamaterials is Metalenz, founded in 2017 by Robert Devlin and Federico Capasso, and is now in a new way to manufacture optical lenses using powerful and inexpensive computer chip manufacturing technology. It is working. Many types of metamaterials are manufactured using the same equipment that makes computer chips. This is important because it foretells a generation of cheaper chips that use light, just as computer chips could use electricity in the 1960s. The innovation has led to a vast new consumer industry. Electronic watches, video games, and personal computers all grew out of their ability to etch circuits on silicon. By piggybacking on microchip technology, tens or millions of 2D lenses that can bend light based on a pattern of transparent material embedded in the surface are a fraction of today’s optical lenses. It will be possible to manufacture at low cost. .. The question these companies have to answer is whether they can offer improved performance and low cost enough to convince manufacturers to switch from current components (in this case cheap plastic lenses). The obvious first step in the new technology is to replace the plastic lenses found on smartphones. This is what Metalenz plans to launch next year, but it’s just the first mass market for metamaterials. According to Devlin, there are also applications that control how they interact with computers and car safety systems, and improve the ability of cheap robots to move in crowded environments. Apple is reportedly working on a system that will eventually shift many smartphone features to thinner, lighter glasses. “One of the big problems is bulkiness and weight,” said Gary Bradski, chief technology officer of OpenCV.ai, the developer of free machine vision software. “That is, how much weight can your nose hold?” Brightness is an advantage offered by Metalenz, each of which is a two-dimensional silicon patterned with a microscopic transparent structure that is smaller than the wavelength of light. Demonstrates ultra-thin lenses. However, making a lens look like an integrated circuit has other important advantages. “One of the most powerful things you can get from a metamaterial or metasurface is the ability to actually reduce system complexity while improving overall performance,” Devlin said. “Therefore, medical or scientific applications that were trapped in the lab because they were so large, bulky, and expensive will now be offered in a form factor price that can be installed in everyone’s phones.” One of the features is to place the sensor just behind the smartphone display so that you can use the entire surface of the phone. It also simplifies a “structured light” sensor that projects a pattern of dots used to perform face recognition. The most powerful attribute of microelectronics has been the ability to scale down circuits, making them faster, stronger, and cheaper for decades. Similarly, metamaterials transform the way designers use light rays. For example, scientists trying to complete an advanced millimeter-wave telescope to be installed at the Simons Observatory in Chile next year turned to a tile metamaterial that wraps inside the telescope and captures virtually all stray light. It was. Photons that land on the surface of the tile are confined to the surface of an ultra-small conical structure, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, and a telescope. “The tiles are light, cheap and easy to install. They won’t fall off,” he said. This article was originally published in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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