Fwd: A Whole New Way of Seeing Things

From: Max More (max@maxmore.com)
Date: Fri Jan 11 2002 - 11:11:40 MST

>Future Boy
>A Whole New Way of Seeing Things
>By Erick Schonfeld
>A lot of advanced technology is about eliminating the practical effects
>of distance. Now three engineers at a company called CDM Optics in
>Boulder, Colo., have figured out how to eliminate the impact that
>distance has on the appearance of images that are viewed through a lens.
>In other words, CDM has created a lens that is always in focus.
>Before I get into just how extraordinary this is, a little bit of
>background about optics might be in order. Conventional lenses have what
>is known as a depth of field, or a range of distances from the lens in
>which objects will appear in focus. For instance, in the first image of
>the crayons below, the ones in the middle are in focus, but those on the
>edges are blurry. The depth of field is confined to the center of the
>image, and the lens can't focus on anything that's closer or farther
>away. You can change the depth of field by moving the elements of the
>lens, and that's how cameras work -- you adjust the lens with your hand
>or, more commonly in autofocus cameras, it can be adjusted by tiny
>Conversely, CDM's new lens never requires adjustment by either hands or
>motors, because the optical rules that govern depth of field no longer
>apply. Instead, the range of distances within which the images are in
>focus is so large that it doesn't matter how far the object is from the
>lens (as can be seen in the second image of the crayons shown here).
>Why would anyone want such a lens? R.C. "Merc" Mercur, one of CDM's
>co-founders, spouts a laundry list of industrial applications, such as
>high-end microscopes, surgical endoscopes, and satellite reconnaissance
>cameras. As a benefit for consumers, the lens could also go into
>extremely small cameras embedded in everything from cell phones to
>laptops to TVs. Since the lens requires no moving parts, it would be
>much cheaper to produce than conventional lenses. And that, in turn,
>could open up a whole new realm of camera-enhanced devices that wouldn't
>require battery-draining motors. Mercur and his partners at CDM, Thomas
>Cathey and Ed Dowski, claim that an entire camera, if produced in high
>volumes for millions of devices, would theoretically cost about $1.
>Back in the early 1990s, Dowski was a young radar engineer who enrolled
>at the University of Colorado to study imaging systems under Cathey,
>then a professor at the university. The two of them came up with the
>idea of applying the algorithms used in radar signal processing to the
>field of optics. In radar, these algorithms resolve the ambiguity
>between determining the speed and the precise location of a moving
>object. The ambiguity in optics is between depth of field and
>illumination, which increases as the amount of available light
>decreases. Dowski thought that, by applying some mathematical
>manipulation, he could resolve this ambiguity and cancel out the
>blurring effects of distance on images -- just like canceling out Xs in
>an algebra equation. "I personally didn't have nearly the experience of
>someone trained classically in optics," he says. "So I didn't know that
>what we were trying to do was impossible."
>It's a good thing too, because the task turned out to be entirely
>possible, when approached the right way. Dowski and Cathey came up with
>a two-step process. First they created a phase mask -- basically a piece
>of plastic with a rippled, undulating surface like that of a potato chip
>-- and attached it to an ordinary lens. This redirected the light that
>hit the lens to create a coded image that compensated for the effects of
>distance. The only problem was that the mask also caused every object in
>the image to be uniformly blurry. So the second step was to take that
>blurry image and run it through a digital signal processor, like the
>ones used in radar equipment, to decode the image and produce one that
>was sharply in focus.
>Mercur helped found the precursor to satellite-equipment manufacturer
>Ball Aerospace and Technology, and he joined up with Cathey and Dowski
>to form CDM Optics with an eye toward commercializing the lens
>technology. "We founded the company five years ago," he reports, "and we
>spent the first three years convincing optical people this wasn't snake
>oil." Now CDM Optics has a licensing arrangement with German
>microscope-maker Carl Zeiss, which is designing the lens into high-end
>microscopes. CDM Optics currently generates revenues of about $1 million
>a year from its licensing arrangements, contract design services, and
>modest product sales. And it's planning to build a small production line
>to manufacture the lenses in bulk.
>Whether or not those lenses will ever see the light of day in anything
>other than microscopes is open to debate. Mercur would argue that CDM's
>lenses "will give a better picture, wider angle of view, smaller
>envelope, and a cost advantage" compared with conventional lenses. He
>also thinks the lenses could be adapted for use in specialized label
>readers, industrial robotic inspection systems, medical equipment, and
>miniature cameras. The challenge now is to get potential customers to
>see the same thing.
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>author, send an e-mail to: future_boy@business2.com
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