Imagine operating a computer by moving your hands within the air as Tony Stark does in “Iron Man.” Or using a smartphone to magnify an object as does the device that Harrison Ford’s character uses in “Blade Runner.” Or a next-generation video meeting where augmented reality glasses make it possible to look at 3D avatars. Or a generation of autonomous vehicles capable of driving safely in city traffic.
These advances and host of others on the horizon could happen due to metamaterials, making it possible to regulate beams of light with same ease that computer chips control electricity.
The term metamaterials refers to a broad class of manufactured materials composed of structures that are finer than the wavelength of visible light , radio waves and other sorts of electromagnetic radiation. Together, they’re now giving engineers extraordinary control in designing new sorts of ultracheap sensors that range from a telescope lens to an infrared thermometer.
“We are entering the buyer phase for metamaterials,” said Alan Huang, the chief technology officer at Terabit Corporation, a Silicon Valley consulting company , who did early research in optical computing during his 12 years at Bell Labs. “It will go way beyond cameras and projectors and cause things we don’t expect. It’s really a field of dreams.”
The first consumer products to require advantage of cheap metamaterials are going to be smartphones, which can improve their performance, but the power to regulate light waves in new ways also will soon enable products like augmented reality glasses that overlay computerized images on the real-world.
The technologies themselves aren’t new. Early in 19th century, the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel proposed idea of flattening and lightening optical lenses by employing a series of concentric grooves to focus light. A key innovation behind metamaterials is that they’re constructed with subcomponents smaller than the wavelength of the sort of radiation they’re designed to control.
For example, to form a lens from metamaterials, you slice silicon (which is simply glass) thinly enough so it’s transparent, then you can embed structures within the thin glass layer that focus light because it passes through.
One of the first people to understand the commercial potential of metamaterials was Nathan Myhrvold, a physicist who was formerly the top of Microsoft Research.
“When I first got into this it had been quite controversial,” Mr. Myhrvold said. “There were scientists who were saying it had been all bunk.”
Since then, Mr. Myhrvold has founded a half-dozen companies based-on metamaterial technologies. Several of these companies are pursuing consumer optical markets, including Lumotive, a Seattle-based firm that’s developing a lidar imaging system without moving parts.
Lidars use lasers to make precise maps of surrounding objects up to distances of many yards. Lidars are widely employed by companies that are developing self-driving vehicles, and today they’re mostly mechanical systems that rapidly spin laser beam to make a map.
In contrast, Lumotive uses liquid-crystal-display technology originally developed for flat panels to “steer” a beam of laser light. The resulting system is far less costly than mechanical lidar, making it possible to think about them for a variety of latest applications, like delivery drones, self-driving cars and manufactured home robots like intelligent vacuum cleaners.
Since the automotive industry is crowded with many manufacturers of lidar, Lumotive company officials have refocused their efforts on new markets for home and industrial robots. They-have not yet announced customers.
“We’re getting into a direction where one among other attributes that we’ve is that the ability to scale this stuff right down to very small size, which makes us unique,” said Bill Colleran, Lumotive’s chief executive and co-founder.
Another company trying to harness the potential of metamaterials is Metalenz, founded in 2017 by Robert Devlin and Federico Capasso, now performing on a new-way to make optical lenses using powerful and cheap computer chip-making technologies.
Many types of metamaterials are being manufactured using same equipment that creates computer chips. that’s significant because it portends a generation of cheap chips that harness light, much the way computer chips were ready to harness electricity within the 1960s. That innovation led to a huge new consumer industry: Electronic watches, followed by video games then personal computers, all grew from the power to etch circuits on silicon.
By piggybacking on microchip technology, it’ll be possible to cheaply make tens of thousands or maybe many two-dimensional lenses that are ready to bend light supported patterns of transparent materials embedded in their surface at a fraction of the value of today’s optical lenses.
The question these companies need to answer is whether or not they will offer enough improved performance and lower cost to influence manufacturers to modify faraway from their current components (in this case, cheap plastic lenses).
An obvious initiative for the new technology are going to be to exchange the plastic lenses found in smartphones, which Metalenz will begin doing next year, but that’s only the first mass marketplace for metamaterials. consistent with Mr. Devlin, there’ll even be applications in controlling how we interact with computers and automotive safety systems, also as improving the power of cheap robots to maneuver in crowded environments.
Apple is reportedly performing on a design for a system which will move many smartphone functions into what is going to eventually be thin and lightweight glasses.
“One of the main problems has been bulk and weight,” said Gary Bradski, chief technologist at OpenCV.ai, a developer of freely available machine vision software. “I mean what proportion weight can your nose hold?”
Lightness is a plus offered by Metalenz, which has demonstrated ultrathin lenses of two-dimensional silicon patterned with ultratiny transparent structures, each smaller than the wavelength of light, However, making the lens like integrated circuits offers other important advantages.
“One of the foremost powerful things that you simply get from metamaterials or metasurfaces is that the ability to actually reduce the complexity of a system while improving the general performance,” Mr. Devlin said. “So medical or scientific applications that are locked away in labs because they’re really big, bulky and expensive will now be offered at a price point in form factor that you simply can put it in every single person’s phone.”
One early capability are going to be to form it feasible to put sensors directly behind smartphone displays, making it possible to use the whole area of a phone. it’ll also simplify the “structured light” sensors that project patterns of dots wont to perform face recognition.
The most powerful attribute of microelectronics was the power to scale down circuits, making them faster, more powerful and fewer expensive, over many decades. In similar fashion, metamaterials will transform the way designers harness beams of light.
For example, scientists who are completing a complicated millimeter telescope scheduled to be installed at the Simons Observatory in Chile next year turned to metamaterials for the tiles which will coat the inside of the telescope to capture virtually all stray light. Photons that land on the surface of the tiles are trapped by a surface of ultrasmall conelike structures, said Mark Devlin (no reference to the Metalenz founder), a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, who is leading the planning of the telescope.
“The tiles are light, cheap, they’re easy to install,” he said, “and they won’t fall off.”
A version of this article appears in print on May 3, 2021, The New York edition