I remember my first visit to an optical laboratory, at the University of Colorado about a dozen years ago. Watching light beams dance across the darkened room as scientists explained how information would soon travel the globe on channels of light, I could hardly envision such a transformation.
But optical technology is, after all, based on the speed of light.
A couple of years ago at a micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) research center at Bell Labs in New Jersey, a research scientist showed me through powerful microscopes how tiny mirrors channel waves of light. That same day, I watched a pure optical system in another Bell Labs facility beam bits of information from a hilltop clothed in fall colors straight into the lab.
These technologies still seem magical to me, but they are marching into our daily lives. Experts predict photons will be to this century what electrons were to the last. And with reality come some cold business lessons.
Some of the optical companies that sprouted on a dream and shot up with showers of easy money from investors have already withered. Venerable companies such as Lucent Technologies are paying the price for not moving quickly enough, Bell Labs notwithstanding.
But for every optical company that has stumbled, there are dozens more that are promising to make optical switches smarter, lasers easier to tune, chromatic dispersion more manageable, Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing ever more dense.
Beyond the technological promise, the maturing optical industry is learning to focus on the need to move quickly from the laboratory to mass production, so that customers can count on their products.
Optical companies are also targeting their efforts to offer service providers a range of options in the products they sell. As they get ever closer to the end user, these products and technologies are solving the thorny problems of metro-area systems and their multiple demands.
But underneath the challenges of both technology and business lies a deeper importance.
Few industries show as much promise for transforming the world. The optical industry holds the potential of giving everyone access to information everywhere, all the time. The race to light the world with optical technology should, in the end, help light human consciousness.