Equipping mobile electronic devices with 3D sensing

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Greg Blackman speaks to Andre Wong at JDSU about 3D sensing, which is taking the mobile device market by storm

JDSU has won the Optical Society’s Enabled by Optics contest for its laser light source used in 3D sensing technology. The award for the laser light source, which was developed originally for Microsoft’s Kinect gaming platform, will be presented at OSA’s annual meeting, Frontiers in Optics, taking place 19-23 October in Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Sensing the world in 3D is now big business in consumer products. Apple bought 3D scanning firm PrimeSense last year, and Google has announced Project Tango to develop 3D sensing technology for mobile devices.

Speaking to Electro Optics, Andre Wong, director of product line management at JDSU, commented: ‘It’s [3D sensing] the beginning of a new optical industry that didn’t exist years before. I think that every 10 years or so, there’s a big industry that comes in optics. Twenty years ago it was optical communications, 10 years ago it was the commercial lasers and fibre lasers, and now sensing is another massive market that’s emerging in optics. What’s enabled that is being able to get very high performance, low cost, precision optical components, and that’s something that JDSU does.’

JDSU’s light source that won the award was developed for the Microsoft Xbox Kinect device that maps the movements of the user’s body to control video games. The first generation of the Kinect used structured light, but most recent versions are based on time-of-flight, which measures the time taken for a pulse of light to return from the environment to the sensor.

Wong said that JDSU received the OSA award for developing light sources that could be mass produced as part of a consumer product. JDSU manufactures light sources for the optical communications industry and based its 3D sensing sources on this technology.

‘A consumer product requires the same level of reliability as communications… but at volumes several orders of magnitude higher and at a much lower price point,’ Wong said. He added that at these volumes, the price is going to come down and that was one of the company’s big accomplishments.

Efficiency was key and JDSU’s design gives more than 50 per cent conversion from electrical to optical power. In a consumer product any wasted heat would be a problem, noted Wong. The device also had to be compact, reliable, and low-cost.

The lasers are very spectrally precise with a typical line width of a few nanometres. This combined with optical filters allows the products to operate in changing ambient light levels.

The OSA award, which is comprised of two tracks—one for companies and one for students—seeks to raise public awareness of the importance of optics and photonics technologies. ‘While the technical community understands the importance of optics, much of the general public is not familiar with what’s powering their high-tech lives,’ said OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan. ‘The Enabled by Optics programme gives us the chance to highlight innovations while clarifying the science on which the products are based. OSA helps connect the excitement of optics and photonics to the non-scientific community through these efforts.'

‘When most people think of photonics and lasers, it’s hard to piece it together about what that means in their daily lives. Something like a gaming consol is on the entertainment side, so it has that appeal to a certain population,’ commented Wong.

Three-dimensional sensing capabilities are starting to find a way into many other areas. The newest Xbox Kinect has a high enough resolution to generate clear images of faces and the user can now log onto their account via face recognition. There are also applications in factory automation where 3D sensing can be used to measure size of boxes, for instance. In some of the healthcare applications, motion recognition allows the user to interact with computers and other devices without touching them, which is important to for hygiene reasons.

Wong also noted that 3D sensing is being embedded into mobile devices to enable them to scan objects in 3D. Dell is soon to release a tablet with a 3D camera where the user can measure the physical distance between two points in an image – the user can measure the dimensions of a room simply by taking a picture of it, for instance.

‘I think the potential applications for measuring real depth in real time is boundless. It’s just a matter of time,’ commented Wong. ‘As more devices get this tool, then the applications of looking at your environment in 3D are starting to come. It spans from mapping your environment, to helping you interact with your device to user identification [through face recognition].’

There were joint winners for the student prize, who will each receive a cash prize of $500. Gustavo Almeida and a team of students at the Universidade de Sao Paulo in Brazil won for a video describing how colours are produced on electronic displays using the red, green, blue (RGB) additive method. Ethan Bratton, a student at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Arkansas, USA, also won with a video explained how a DVD player or game system reads data on a disc using lasers.

Further Information:


OSA’s Annual Meeting, Frontiers in Optics

Project Tango