Navigating the Laser Maze at FiO/LS

27. October 2010

By Patricia Daukantas, OPN Contributing Writer

LaserFest--the yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first laser--is not over yet. At this year’s FiO/LS meeting, LaserFest has a strong presence in the exhibit hall.

Since arriving in Rochester (N.Y., U.S.A.), I’ve been hearing a lot about the Laser Maze, so by the time the exhibit hall opened yesterday morning, I could hardly wait to try it. The University of Rochester’s student chapter of OSA developed the maze with a grant from the LaserFest program. Previously the students had set it up at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, but they moved it over to the OSA meeting for the enjoyment of attendees.

The premise of the Laser Maze will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen one of those bank-robbery or jewel-heist movies. A laser and a light sensor make up part of a complete circuit. Interrupt the laser beam and the circuit breaks.

In this case, the circuit was powering a small music player, so breaking the beam stopped the music (instead of setting off an alarm like in the movies). The laser beam bounced side to side several times off parallel mirrors close to the floor, so the maze walker had to step through the gaps between the reflected beams.

Of course, in the movies the audience sees the laser beams from the side, thanks to either smoke or computer-generated effects. No such luck with the Laser Maze, however. The LaserFest people had a small theatrical “smoke” machine, but due to a combination of the bright ceiling lights and the ventilation in the exhibit hall, the particles did not linger long in the air. Thus, the maze walker had to look for tiny red dots on the mirrors and imagine where the beam might have gone, based on equal angles of incidence and reflection.

Since I didn’t want to embarrass anyone else, I had someone take photos of me trying to step through the maze.Here I’m starting off on the right foot.



I’m home safe after figuring out the first beam path.



Another step, probably higher than it needs to be.



Do I still have what it takes?


Dang! I just nicked that last horizontal beam!


To make the maze even more challenging, the Rochester chapter set up a second set of reflecting beams and mirrors … vertically. Technically, to complete the maze, one had to get through both the horizontal and vertical sections without interrupting the recorded music. However, I probably would have had to slide myself on the floor to get through that maze, and I wasn’t feeling quite that acrobatic.

OSA Student Chapter Competition 2010

At last year’s FiO/LS, OSA student chapters built miniature solar-powered cars and raced them. This year, they were given a different challenge: to create an educational tabletop exhibit to teach young people about one or more principles of optics.

Yesterday I visited several of the chapters’ tables, but since the competition is continuing into today, I’ll write up more details for tomorrow’s blog entry.





Frontiers in Optics, Laserfest, Lasers, Optics and pop culture, Photography , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scanning Robin Hood’s Dungeon with Lasers

7. May 2010

By Patricia Daukantas


What do lasers have to do with Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham? They turn out to have a rather “deep” connection, if you’ll pardon the pun.


The University of Nottingham – yes, that Nottingham – has begun to survey the hundreds of sandstone caves under the English city with laser-scanning equipment. One of those caves is believed to be the dungeon in which the Sheriff of Nottingham imprisoned Robin Hood (if, of course, you believe that the do-gooding outlaw actually existed in medieval times).


The British Geological Survey mapped the caves in the 1980s, but Nottingham officials would like to use the laser-scanning data to create virtual representations of the caves to increase their tourist potential. In other words, visitors would be able to explore the caves without experiencing the associated “health and safety issues,” as the BBC report put it.


The Nottingham Caves Survey has its own website at which it explains the laser scanning procedure.


We’re all about to be inundated with everything “Robin Hood,” as the Ridley Scott movie by that name is readied for a debut next week. In this month of the laser’s 50th anniversary, it’s interesting to contemplate the intersection of modern optical history with the legends of yore.

2010-05 May, Applied optics, Miscellaneous Optics, Optics and pop culture , , , , ,

Day 2 of OSA’s Annual Meeting

21. October 2008

Optics, Video Games and Shakespeare

By Patricia Daukantas

Greetings from Rochester! I am in this upstate New York community, where OSA was born, to attend Frontiers in Optics (FiO), our 92nd annual meeting. This week I’ll be blogging from the conference.

Already I’ve been learning some cool things. Did you know, for example, that playing action video games may help your vision? Or that Shakespeare foreshadowed quantum optics?

During Sunday’s session titled “What’s Hot in Optics,” a useful road map to the FiO technical program, Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester’s Center for Visual Science reported that test subjects showed significant improvements in the spatial and temporal resolution of their visual processes after 10 hours of playing fast-paced action video games—the ones that require gamers to move quickly and “shoot” targets after making split-second decisions. Perhaps someday auto insurance companies will offer discounts to older drivers who expand their useful field of view by playing these action games.

OSA Past President (2004) Sir Peter Knight, this year’s recipient of the Frederic Ives Medal/Jarus Quinn Endowment, quoted a famous soliloquy from Macbeth in introducing his field of quantum optics and speculating on the non-classical nature of reality. Okay, so Shakespeare didn’t really use the word “quantum,” but you can ponder his words yourself:

Is this a dagger which I see before me

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see the still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw.

Watch for OPN’s first-ever podcast after the conference. The podcast will feature exclusive content, including interviews with several distinguished invited speakers.

2008-10 October, Optics and pop culture , , ,

The ‘Telectroscope’ Crosses the Pond

23. May 2008

By Patricia Daukantas

Imagine standing in New York and being able to peep through a telescope at people walking down the street in London. Or the other way around.

Nonsense, you say. The magnification required for such a ground-based telescope would be daunting. And then there’s the little matter of the curvature of the Earth over the 5,580-km distance.

However, a British artist has been able to build such a “telescope”—and even to make his creation look like a giant tube that was drilled through the Earth from one coast of the Atlantic Ocean to the other.

On May 20, the public-art project emerged from the banks of the East River in Brooklyn as a giant metal drill bit. By Thursday, the art installation looked like the end of a giant brass and wood telescope poking out of the ground. This “Telectroscope” is Paul St George’s conception of a 19th-century idea that started when a reporter misspelled the word “electroscope” (a classic device for measuring static electricity) and writers such as Mark Twain spun tales of pictures that could be sent around by telegraph wires.

Although the “story” on St George’s Web site,, implies that a giant straight-line hole was drilled through the Earth, the gizmo really relies on high-definition cameras linked by undersea fiber-optic cables, courtesy of the European Internet provider Tiscali.

Still, the Telectroscope gives passersby the illusion that they are looking through a giant Victorian spyglass—and they can actually wave at their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.

CNN and the New York Times are among the media outlets sorting out the colorful facts and fiction about this artwork, which will be in operation in both London and New York until June 15. The Telectroscope fits in well with other “steampunk” movies, novels and fashions that have gained popularity in recent years.

2008-05 May, Optics and pop culture , ,

Happy Birthday, Lena Sjööblom Söderberg!

31. March 2008

By Patricia Daukantas

You’ve seen her portrait: the doelike eyes, the Mona Lisa smile, the jaunty feathered hat tipping down over a bare shoulder. Since the early days of computer networks, her image has become one of the standards for image calibration, manipulation and transmission within the optical imaging community. Her portrait has graced hundreds of image-processing papers over the past 36 years and will doubtless contribute to many more. But who is she, and where did she come from?


Her name is Lena Sjööblom Söderberg, and today is her 57th birthday. The head-and-shoulders portrait of Lena (sometimes spelled “Lenna” in English) is cropped from a far more revealing image in the November 1972 issue of Playboy magazine. Researchers at the University of Southern California created a digital file of the picture as an alternative to the more boring test patterns of the era. As the former editor-in-chief of an IEEE journal once noted, the photo has a good mix of details for testing image-processing algorithms – and her face had a certain appeal to the then-mostly-male research community.

It took many years for Lena to learn that her face had helped bring about the JPEG and MPEG standards and other imaging technology that we take for granted today. Since her days of modeling in Chicago, she returned to her native Sweden, married and had three children. Various Internet sources have her working either for the Swedish national liquor monopoly or as a teacher of computer skills to adults with disabilities. According to one of Lena's fans at Carnegie Mellon University, she was a special guest at a 1997 conference of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology.

2008-03 March, Optics and pop culture , ,

Holographic 3D Film

17. March 2008

Posted by Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor



I can still remember how excited I was when I saw the March 1984 issue of my father’s National Geographic magazine, which featured the laser-sculpted image of an eagle on its cover. That was the first time I ever saw a hologram. (After doing a quick Google search, I’ve learned that that particular issue is now selling for close to $200; it may be time to revisit my parents’ stash of old magazines!)


Now there is reason to believe that the eagle may one day take flight. OSA Fellow Nasser Peyghambarian and his colleagues at the University of Arizona, along with engineers from Nitto Denko Technical Corporation, in Oceanside, Calif., have produced a prototype of the first photorefractive polymer film in which 3D images can be captured, erased and re-recorded. Similar to a paper “flip book” of images taken in rapid succession, a series of these holograms—when captured quickly—can create the illusion of 3D motion.

For more details and images of the holographic film, check out the recent news pieces in IEEE Spectrum and Scientific American.

And stay tuned for an OPN feature article on this technology by Peyghambarian himself in a summer issue of OPN. We probably won’t feature a flying eagle on our cover, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

2008-03 March, Miscellaneous Optics, Optics and pop culture , ,

A Real Ray Gun

4. March 2008

Posted by Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor



Last Sunday night, the CBS news program 60 Minutes ran a fascinating story about a non-lethal “ray gun” that the Pentagon has developed. The weapon is a flat-dish antenna that shoots a 100,000-watt electromagnetic beam of high-frequency radio waves, hitting anything in its path with an intense blast of heat. Unlike in Buck Rogers, however, the beam is invisible unless viewed with an infrared camera. It does not inflict any lasting damage and just barely penetrates the body’s tissues. (It is absorbed only in the top 1/64 of an inch on the skin, which is where the pain receptors are located.) The weapon is chiefly intended as a crowd-control device. 

The report reminded me of Steve Wilk’s March 2005 Light Touch article in OPN about “How Ray Guns Got their Zap,” which describes the real science behind the ray guns used by fictional heroes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The article explains the origins of the word “ray” and how it came to refer specifically to directional electromagnetic radiation.

2008-03 March, Biomedical optics, Optics and pop culture ,

Saying Goodbye to Instant Film

11. February 2008

By Patricia Daukantas

My first camera was a Polaroid—back when the “colorpack” film had the peel-off chemical paper. I think it was a Model 320; it had bellows. The camera was the best Christmas present I got when I was 12 years old, and I immediately started taking pictures of my parents and grandmother. Letting the print-negative sandwich dangle from my fingers for exactly 60 seconds, then peeling the thing apart and setting the print to dry without getting chemicals on my skin, became a test of my ability to handle grown-up technology.


Of course, a year or two later, Polaroid Corp. came out with the first SX-70, and people didn’t have to fiddle with timers and smelly trash anymore. But those cameras were expensive, so I labored with my older Polaroid for a few more years until I got a hand-me-down Kodak camera from my father. Finally, I took up 35-mm photography in college.

Now comes word that Polaroid—or what’s left of the company after a bankruptcy several years ago—is discontinuing its remaining instant-film products. The company is willing to license its technology to other companies who might want to supply the ever-shrinking niche market for the instant-developing film. However, if no firms come forward, the remaining Polaroid devotees will be out of luck.

As the New York Times recounts, the self-developing Polaroid prints seemed like a wonder back in the days of film photography. And instant photography has a major connection to OSA history: As noted in the February 2007 issue of OPN, Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land chose the 1947 OSA annual meeting to demonstrate the technology for the first time. He was the hit of the OSA banquet, which took place the same month that his JOSA article was published explaining the process.

Legend has it that Land was inspired to develop instant photography when his daughter asked him why she couldn’t see the pictures he took immediately. Today’s children, surrounded by digital cameras, will never think to ask that question.

Polaroid Land Camera 360



2008-02 February, Optics and pop culture, Optics history, Photography , , ,

Unos, Dos, Tres Dimensions!

5. February 2008

By Patricia Daukantas

The popular rock band U2 made its first concert movie two decades ago. So why are film critics falling all over themselves to rave about its second movie?

The answer, it turns out, lies in optical imaging technology. The directors of “U2 3D,” which opened recently in limited engagement, used special 3D digital cameras from 3ality Digital Inc. of Burbank, Calif., to film the live-action concerts.

As reported by, each of the 3ality mobile camera setups—there were nine in all—incorporated two Sony digital cameras, surround-sound recording equipment, and an unprecedented degree of computer control of the cameras and zoom lenses. The cameras generated incredible amounts of data, which fiber-optic cables fed into 3ality’s servers for editing and post-production. (The finished film contains almost 1 petabyte of data—that’s as much as 1 million 1-GB USB drives.)

More information is available on the movie's Web site—but check your computer’s speakers before surfing there, as the home page features Bono’s voice singing the opening of the song “Vertigo.”

2008-02 February, Imaging, Optics and pop culture , ,

LEDs Light Up Rockefeller Center’s Holiday Tree

30. November 2007

By Patricia Daukantas

When New York’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree burst into glorious colors on national television last night, the brilliant light came from energy-saving LEDs for the first time ever.

Until this year, incandescent bulbs had always lit the giant tree, which has been a Big Apple tradition since the 1930s. However, the 2007 tree, an 84-foot (25.6-m) Norway spruce, is strung with 30,000 LEDs on 5 miles (8 km) of electrical wire. For each of the 42 days that the tree is illuminated, it will consume 1,297 kWh of electricity instead of the 3,510 kWh used by the old-fashioned bulbs. The difference is enough to power a 2,000-square-foot (186-m2) single-family home for a month.

According to New York municipal officials and the Rockefeller Center management, the “green” tree is part of an environmentally oriented package that includes installation of a 363-panel photovoltaic roof that feeds into the electrical grid of the building complex. The roof will power the tree during the holiday season, and when the tree is taken down in January, the wood will be cut up for use in Habitat for Humanity homes.

With energy prices at record highs, more manufacturers are starting to produce LED holiday lighting for home use, too. Not only do LEDs save caboodles of electricity, but they last up to 100 times longer than conventional bulbs. If you’ve ever spent a December afternoon wrestling with a long string of series-linked incandescent lights, trying to figure out which bulb blew out and made the whole string go dark, you’ll appreciate the long lifetime.

Nevertheless, LED lights
still cost more than their old-fashioned counterparts, so it may take a family a few seasons to recoup the cost.

For photos of the tree, check out this photo gallery from the New York Daily News.

2007-11 November, Optics and pop culture , ,