Shedding New Light on Optics: Why Applied Ventures is Investing in Engineered Optics

It is an incredibly exciting time in the field of optics, as we are currently seeing technological breakthroughs reminiscent of the early days of semiconductors and the beginning of Moore’s Law. Not only are there improvements in the size, performance and cost of optical components, but whole new applications are being enabled. An entirely new field of optics has emerged, which we refer to as “Engineered Optics.”

For centuries, optical design has been grounded in the fundamentals that the curvature of the lens determines the optical path (see Figure 1). Curved lenses are used in most cameras and image sensors to manipulate light.

Figure 1: Traditional optics use the curve of the lens to direct light.

Right now, the paradigm of optical design is being completely upended by Engineered Optics, which is the fabrication of optical elements with micron and sub-micron sized features. Why is this exciting? Because these microscopic features can replace curved lenses, prisms, mirrors and other bulkier components that are traditionally used in optics. What is doubly exciting is that existing fabrication equipment from the semiconductor industry can be used to make these tiny optical features.

A great example of how Engineered Optics is disrupting the optics industry is Applied Ventures’ portfolio company, Metalenz, which recently announced its Series A funding round. Metalenz is replacing traditional lenses in devices such as smartphones with their metasurfaces (see Figure 2). CEO Rob Devlin says it best: “We’re really using all standard semiconductor processes and materials here, the exact same equipment—but fabricating lenses instead of electronics.”

Figure 2: Metalenz is able to reduce the size of a conventional camera module by replacing multiple curved lenses with one flat lens.

Metasurfaces are a great example of a step-function change in how optics are designed and made, a complete revolution in the industry. We are also seeing the novel advancements in Engineered Optics enable entirely new applications, such as making ultra-thin, light and efficient optical displays, as another Applied Ventures portfolio company Avegant is creating for Augmented Reality headsets. These advancements in component miniaturization are key to enabling things like all-day wear smart glasses, which could have the potential to one day become the next billion-unit computing platform!

Applied Ventures continues to invest across the Materials to Systems™ stack in the broader optics field. To learn more about how Applied Ventures and Applied Materials are helping enable innovations in the cutting-edge field of Engineered Optics, tune in to Applied Materials CTO and Senior Vice President Om Nalamasu’s keynote at the SPIE AR|VR|MR event on Monday, March 29 at 8:20 am PT.

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