23 June 2017

Finding the technologies of the future

The future happens at SPIE Optics + Photonics

What will the future look like? For technologists, policy makers, and venture capitalists alike this is the million-dollar — really billion-dollar — question.

For scientists and engineers working on the technology that will fuel this future, the question is more about where to secure funding, where to publish, and where to present their research. SPIE’s Optics + Photonics symposium in San Diego this August is the choice of many of these top researchers to present their latest iterations on future-impacting technology.

The future of medicine

Technology will most certainly play a large role in the future of healthcare, from innovative imaging techniques and personalized medicine to further understanding of the brain and how it functions and malfunctions. While not a major focus of the symposium, many healthcare-enabling technologies will be presented.

A group of Italian researchers will be presenting their work utilizing machine learning to analyze MRI brain scans for detecting Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and MS respectively, all in hopes of earlier diagnosis and treatment.

UC Berkeley’s Laura Waller will be showcasing her lab’s work with compressive sampling and imaging to visualize brain activity at the neuron level, work that could help researchers understand the basic function of neurons and perhaps unlock a key in neurological disorders.

The Mind Research Network’s work on developing tools for studying brain disorders will showcase research on how to better analyze brain imaging data.

Each of these presentations, like the hundreds of others with healthcare implications, are a small glimpse into the future of medicine and the impact optics and photonics has in healthcare technologies.

Among the papers:

The future of the internet

When looking to the future it’s important to first look at the present and past and what technologies were key innovations in our transformations. In that light, it would be hard to find a bigger driver for change than the internet and mobile phones.

The future will be no different. Building the internet of tomorrow will take innovations in security, data compression, image processing, and display technologies among others.

All of these will be on display in San Diego with entire multiday conferences filled with presentations on quantum, image processing, and OLED technologies. Industry leaders Qualcomm, Samsung, GoPro, IBM, and HP are all presenting their latest research for tomorrow’s innovations.

A roadmap for the quantum internet of the future will be presented by QuTech’s Stephanie Wehner.

Mobile chip manufacturer Qualcomm will be presenting on compression techniques for mobile applications.

A poster presentation on detecting text in natural scenes will showcase technology that's needed for translating signs in real time among other potential applications.

Among the papers:

The future of video and distribution

Before we were all binge-watching Netflix, researchers were developing codecs for compressing and sending video over fiber. Similarly, before the next paradigm shift in video and immersive technologies take over, science needs to happen.

Technicolor, yes, that Technicolor, will be presenting a paper on the key factors in VR experiences.

Google will discuss the latest work on the newly released video codec AV1 which promises to be the next step in distributing 4K content across the web.

GoPro has four presentations all focused on 360 or omnidirectional video, giving us insight on where the future of video lies.

Optics has always been at the core of imaging and the breadth of video, imaging, and distribution content at Optics + Photonics shows this won't change in the future.

Among the papers:

The future of space exploration

Space has long been the final frontier and its exploration the epitome of future-thinking.

From the democratization of space through CubeSats to the exploration of deep space through space telescopes and planetary missions, SPIE Optics + Photonics will have the future of space exploration on display.

Using CubeSats for distributing quantum keys will be presented in a talk that combines the future of the internet with the future of space exploration.

Two presentations will discuss the feasibility of sending wafer sized “nanocrafts” deep into space using lasers to propel them at one-fifth the speed of light. The project is part of the ”star shot“ funded by billionaires Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg and supported by Steven Hawking.

In addition to these exciting presentations NASA, JPL, ESA, Ball Aerospace, and others will present the future of telescopes in hundreds of presentations on the optics and optical engineering needed to see into the cosmos.

Among the papers:

The future

The science of today and most certainly of the future will be interdisciplinary, employing multiple innovations and technologies from disciplines including physics, biology, chemistry, computer science, materials science, and engineering in applications such as the DragonflEYE: A backpack of sensors, powered by a solar cell, that is attached to the brain of a living dragon fly to create a living drone.

At SPIE Optics + Photonics, see:

The future is unknowable and certain to be full of surprises. While we may not know what it holds, we do know the future is starting in optics labs around the world and many of those labs will be presenting their visions for the future in San Diego.

12 June 2017

Very wearable wearables usher in new paradigm in healthcare

Wearables including temporary tattoos are contributing
to a paradigm shift in healthcare monitoring;
above, a slide from a presentation by Nanshu Lu
on graphene electronic tattoos for monitoring organ function.

Wearable devices, materials, and even temporary tattoos are entering healthcare and other markets, offering the potential for faster, more accurate, and potentially life-saving treatment.

Tracking and measuring activity in the 11 major organ systems in the human body systems is imperative for medical providers to quickly and accurately diagnose and treat patients experience trauma or other emergencies. But existing medical equipment may be uncomfortably bulky or take valuable time to set up.

Skin-like devices and other technologies can provide unobtrusive, comfortable, and precise alternatives for sensing what is happening inside the body.

In one development, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are developing a skin-like temporary tattoo that takes measurements of electrical signals from the heart, muscles, and brain (see a video presentation in the SPIE Digital Library and a report in IEEE Spectrum).

Nanshu Lu and Deji Akinwande of the University of Texas at Austin have developed a method for making graphene electrodes that may be applied to the skin, much like a temporary tattoo.

Lu and Akinwande invented epidermal electronics with John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign six years, Lu told an audience at SPIE Smart Structures and Materials and Nondestructive Evaluation in Portland, Oregon, in March.

Their process starts “by growing single-layer graphene on a sheet of copper,” Lu explained in IEEE Spectrum. The 2D carbon sheet is coated with a stretchy support polymer, and the copper is etched off.

Next, the polymer-graphene sheet is placed on temporary tattoo paper, the graphene is carved to make electrodes with stretchy spiral-shaped connections between them, and the excess graphene is removed.

The sensor is then applied by placing it on the skin and wetting the back of the paper.

“The next step is to add an antenna to the design so that signals can be beamed off the device to a phone or computer,” Akinwande said.

Lu and Akinwande will give updates on their work in featured talks at SPIE Optics and Photonics in San Diego in August.

Among other advances being reported at the meeting in San Diego by groups working in wearables for healthcare:

  • Matti Mantysalo, Tampere University of Technology, et al. will present on printed soft-electronics for remote body monitoring, including fabrication and characterization of electrode bandages and temperature sensors (10366-13). Among wearable electronics entering consumer markets over the past few years, wrist devices and textile integration are common technologies for unobtrusive measuring during sport and for well-being, they say, and disposable bandages represent a paradigm shift.

  • Raphael Pfattner and others in the research group of Zhenan Bao of Stanford University have been working with material properties for stretchable electronics for wearable devices, to overcome severe limitations that may be posed by organic materials (10365-9).

  • Benjamin Tee of the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering in Singapore will cover a variety of dramatic changes in how we interact with the digital environment, in his paper on optogenetic electronic skins (10366-16) — for example, robots can don sensor active skins to shake human hands with comfortable pressure, measure health biometrics, and possibly aid in wound healing.

  • Piero Cosseddu, Universit√† degli Studi di Cagliari, et al. will show how organic charge-modulated field-effect transistors can be routinely fabricated on highly flexible, ultraconformable thin films and used for monitoring pH variations with a very high degree of sensitivity (10364-19). Their approach has been applied for monitoring cell metabolic activity as well as electrical activity of excitable cells.

Healing wounds, monitoring organ function, “seeing” inside the body — just a few of the ways that wearables are changing our lives.

08 June 2017

What does space technology have to do with medicine?

Ultraviolet image from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer
shows NGC 3242, a planetary nebula frequently referred to
as “Jupiter’s Ghost.” Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Are there any connections between space technologies and healthcare?

You bet there is, says Shouleh Nikzad, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the principal engineer, co-lead, and technical director for JPL’s Medical Engineering Forum.

Numerous optics and photonics technologies originally developed for space applications have found their way into consumer and medical markets, Nikzad writes in the April 2017 issue of SPIE Professional magazine.

Infrared thermometers, workout machines, compact cameras in mobile phones, and imaging technologies are just a few familiar examples.

Ultraviolet imaging is also used in medical applications
to reveal disease, as in this image of cancerous brain tissue.
Although applying astrophysics technologies to medical applications may appear difficult, there's a certain synergy between these two fields.

"As explorers, we invest great efforts and resources to develop sensors and instruments to measure signatures from faint objects, characterize planetary atmospheres, observe the remnants of dying stars, explore planetary bodies, and search for signs of life," she says.

"These applications require high sensitivity and high accuracy from reliable, robust, compact, low-power, low-mass, noninvasive instruments that can work in harsh and unfriendly environments.

"This probably sounds familiar to those in medical sciences and medical practice," she says. "As human beings, we invest great efforts and resources to help patients. We try to detect faint signals that differentiate good cells from bad, get close to the area of interest without disturbing other areas, … and look for signs of life.

"These conditions also require high sensitivity and high accuracy from reliable, robust, compact, low-power, low-mass, noninvasive instruments that can work in unfriendly environments."

Take the example of the Electronic Nose for environmental monitoring of crewed space missions. JPL developed the ENose to fly on the NASA Space Shuttle during John Glenn Jr.’s second historic flight in 1998 as well as on the International Space Station.

Modeled after the way a mammal’s nose operates, the ENose can be trained to recognize patterns and therefore detect the presence and levels of substances that might be harmful to astronauts.

Some time later, scientists at JPL and the City of Hope, inspired by the fact that some dogs can sniff cancer, collaborated to use the ENose in a proof-of-concept experiment to determine whether the technology can distinguish normal cells from brain-cancer cells and skin-cancer cells.

Ultraviolet imaging is also used in medical applications to reveal disease, as in this image of cancerous brain tissue.

And the benefits between space technologies and medical applications go both ways.

A team from JPL and the Skull Base Institute, for instance, originally developed MARVEL, a multiangle, rear-viewing endoscopic tool, for minimally invasive brain tumor removal. As described in "4-mm-diameter three-dimensional imaging endoscope with steerable camera for minimally invasive surgery (3-D-MARVEL)," in the journal Neurophotonics, the tool has stereoscopic vision and fits within a small 4-mm-diameter tube.

It was not long before a space application for the technology was realized. The MARVEL innovation can be used to remotely sense and verify the rock and soil samples collected by robots from planetary bodies, before the samples are returned to Earth.

Photonics technologies not only make for a better world, they are literally out of this world!

20 March 2017

Ants, bees, and octopuses: bioinspired robotics, drones, and smart structures

Ready to fly
Robotic pollinator
Photo and video: Miyako et al.
Can you imagine a world in which our crops and flowers are pollinated by autonomous drones the size of bees? Researchers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology believe this reality could be closer than we may think due to staggering declines in bee populations around the world.

Eijiro Miyako and his colleagues have used the principle of cross-pollination to engineer a bioinspired robotic pollinator, which can mimic the functionality of real bees, reports an article published in Science Direct. Measuring 4 centimeters wide and weighing a mere 15 grams, each drone is equipped with a strip of horsehair coated in an iconic liquid gel, allowing it to pick up pollen from one flower and deposit it in another.

"GPS, high-resolution cameras and artificial intelligence will be required for the drones to independently track their way between flowers and land on them correctly, " said Miyako.

While other methods sometimes prove to be more practical in some applications, bioinspired technology offers unique solutions to a wide variety of complex problems across numerous industries, and research is advancing.

Bioinspiration, Biomimetics, and Bioreplication VII, a conference focused on research and technology influenced by natural biological processes found in a variety of plants and organisms, will feature reports on research for several applications areas.

The conference is one of 11 being presesnted at SPIE Smart Structures/Nondestructive Evaluation 25–29 March in Portland, Oregon.

Among the presentations, David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Ltd., will report in an all-conference plenary talk on research investigating how conventional motors limit bioinspired robotics and how electroactive polymer (EAP) actuators and sensors improve simplicity, compliance, and physical scaling in motors driving robotics. Hanson will also describe bioinspired advantages in robotic locomotion, grasping, manipulation, and social expressions, and present a roadmap for EAP actuators in bioinspired intelligent robotics.

In "Foldable drones: from biology to technology," Dario Floreano, Stefano Mintchev, and Jun Shintake of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne will discuss the advantages and current limitations of adaptive morphological capabilities in drones.

Foldable wings enable better transition between aerial and ground locomotion, advancing the development of multimodal drones for extended mission envelopes. Currently, the potential of foldable drones is limited by the use of conventional design strategies and rigid materials. Tackling this challenge includes the development of structures that can become soft during morphing and stiff during regular operation by using origami structures or variable stiffness materials such as EAPs.

Folding, crawling, gripping -- to save lives

In other work drawing inspiration from nature, Michael Tolley of the University of California, San Diego, reported last August at SPIE Optics + Photonics on his team’s work in creating small robots capable of folding, gripping, or crawling through small spaces.

The goal is to create smart robots capable of working in uncontrolled environments, such as search and rescue missions or inhospitable locations, Tolley said.

One inspiration came from a particular seed pod in a very dry area of the world. The pod unfolds when the humidity is just right, releasing seeds.

In another capability, an ant-inspired gripper starts as a 2-D piece of layered plastic and folds into a useful little robot capable of moving objects. Rather than fold the robots by hand, Tolley’s research team developed layered structures that self-fold into pre-printed shapes when heat is applied. Adding localized heating to the structure allows for sequential folding; heating the structure in one area, then the next area leads to self-folding structures – even furniture.

Typical robots are made of material too hard and tough to be flexible. However, using silicone elastomers, Tolley created a soft-bodied robot – inspired by soft-bodied octopuses that are capable of squishing through very small spaces – that could tolerate heat, water, and getting run over, all while being flexible and capable of crawling along using inflatable pneumatic tubes. This soft-bodied robot may come to rescue earthquake victims one day.

Tolley's group will present on "Fluid electrodes for submersible robotics based on dielectric elastomer actuators," at SPIE Smart Structures/NDE in the conference on EAP Actuators and Devices.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Bernhardt, research assistant in nonlinear optics at Washington State University, reported on Michael Tolley's research from 2016 SPIE Optics + Photonics.