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17 October 2013

Sunny California hosts Solar Decathlon

This past weekend marked the conclusion of the 2013 Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, held in Irvine, California. It was the sixth time the DOE-sponsored event has been held in the United States, but the first time outside of Washington, DC. Besides the obvious benefits of exposure to a new audience, the contest made the best of the more dependable California sunshine, although there was some rain one day, and the first weekend was a challenge with hot temperatures and 50 mph Santa Ana winds.

In any case each team was able to tally a full 100 points for the Energy Conversion part of the competition – meaning every house produced more energy than it consumed – for the first time ever.

SPIE Newsroom and SPIE.TV spent some time in Irvine and focused on the technical aspects of some of the houses. We had an expert commentator to help – Adam Plesniak of Amonix, the concentrating PV company located in nearby Seal Beach. Adam’s view, and that of many others we encountered, is that the focus is no longer about proving solar’s value but about how to efficiently integrate it into design, construction and the power grid.




Several teams incorporated innovative technologies into their houses, such as predictive shading systems, circulating water for heating and cooling, and bifacial solar collection units, gathering energy from direct sunlight on top and reflected light underneath.

SPIE student member Kimberly Hammer gave us a description (see video) of some of the technologies that went into the University of Nevada Las Vegas house, DesertSOL . Kimberley just received her master’s in mechanical engineering from UNLV, and started this fall at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences, pursuing her PhD and studying photovoltaics. UNLV tied for third in the Engineering competition and finished second overall in the Solar Decathlon.

It’s fun and inspiring to visit these houses and feel the enthusiasm of the students who made them a reality. Over and over we heard about the challenges of people from different disciplines coming together for a project like this. In every case, it was worth the effort to overcome differences in terminology, priorities, and methods in order to produce something great. SPIE congratulates all the participants in the Solar Decathlon, and extends our appreciation to the organizers and sponsors. 

Team Austria wins 2013 Solar Decathlon (SPIE Newsroom)

Next up: the Solar Decathlon Europe, opening 27 June 2014.

10 October 2013

Suddenly, it’s all clear: instant prescription eyewear

To a child with impaired vision, it might seem like magic. You put on the glasses and turn a dial to adjust the lenses to correct the particular refractive error in your own eyes. VoilĂ ! Instant prescription! Instant clear vision!

But it’s not magic. It’s photonics.

Specifically, these are “instant prescription eyewear” using adaptive optics, techniques that correct optical signals within a particular system.

Applications in astronomy provide a good illustration. Light coming in from space to telescopes on Earth is distorted by particles and gases in the atmosphere. Adaptive optics techniques make corrections in the final viewed image, based on analysis of what has caused the distortion, and render a clear image of what’s out there.

A student at Bwindi Watoto School
in Uganda wears Child ViSion's instant
prescription eyewear. Photo courtesy
Child ViSion.
Joshua Silver, CEO of the Centre for Vision in the Developing World, and Dow Corning are working to bring adaptive-optics-based eyewear to millions of people in the developing world who have no access to vision correction services, through an initiative called Child ViSion.

Child ViSion estimates that 60% of young people in the developing world do not have the glasses that they need to be successful in school. The program helps tackle poor vision by distributing self-adjustable glasses, based on a fluid-filled lens technology, through school-based programs in Africa.

Members of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and participants at the society’s recent Optics + Photonics meeting in San Diego are helping, too -- to the tune of a $10,000 donation from the society.

Child ViSion was one of three philanthropic projects that were up for a vote at the event and on the SPIE website, and was awarded the top donation as a result of winning the most votes.

ALOP facilitators in Nepal, a recent workshop site.
The other two projects up for vote were also winners, with each receiving a donation of $2,500 from SPIE. Each meets a need in the area of STEM education, in very creative ways.

Teaching the teachers

Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) workshops introduce basic optics and photonics concepts to teachers in developing countries, by pairing theoretical modules with hands-on applications and using low-cost locally available materials. Hundreds of teachers have been provided with training manuals and materials to take back to their classrooms. This SPIE donation will support teachers to attend an ALOP training in Colombia.

The trainers are dedicated volunteers, optics and photonics professors from far-flung universities who travel the world with the support of UNESCO, SPIE, ICTP (International Centre for Theoretical Physics) and other organizations, and continually demonstrate their passion for sharing the possibilities for improving quality of life by using scientific knowledge.

Fun with lasers

Hundreds of cheering students have it right: the Laser
Roadshow is a great way to learn about optics.
Ever heard several hundred middle-schoolers cheering and singing in response to a science lesson? In the case of the Laser Roadshow, it’s a chilling experience -- in a really wonderful way.

Prismatic Magic's Laser Roadshow brings engaging laser programs to assemblies at schools with underserved populations across the United States, combining science and laser education with music and a laser animation show. The program’s mission is to enhance general awareness of how advances in optics and photonics improve quality of life and to motivate students to explore careers in optics and photonics.

Combined with educational and travel scholarships and numerous other programs, SPIE provides more than $3.2 million in support of optics and photonics education and outreach programs each year.

With the vote, the society aimed to increase awareness of just how that money is allotted, and also to give the community a voice in where the donations go.

Inspiring stories of photonics helping to make a better world!

07 October 2013

Eye-tracking technology


Advancements in microtechnology, photonic devices, image sensors and illuminators are helping people with speech impairments and other disabilities communicate and experience a greatly enhanced quality of life without the need for bulky head gear or a bite bar.

A recent article in SPIE Professional magazine outlines the innovations that Swedish-based Tobii Technology has made with eye-tracking technologies for augmentative communication systems for people with ALS, (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), for example, as well as for applications in auto safety, medical imaging, human psychology research and more.

“Assistive technologies and eye tracking make a natural pair to allow people with disabilities to regain independence and maintain communication,” said Henrik Eskilsson, CEO and co-founder of Tobii Technology.

Different from eye-recognition technologies in which a device responds to whether a user’s eyes are looking at it or are open or closed, Tobii’s eye-tracking technology enables the user’s gaze point to become a selecting device on computers, tablets, and other devices, all with a subject sitting and moving in a natural manner in front of a computer.

Tobii eye trackers are based on the principle of corneal-reflection tracking. First, one or several near-infrared illuminators on an eye-tracking device create reflection patterns on the cornea of the eyes.

Image sensors then register the image of the user’s eyes in real time.

Image processing is used to find the eyes, detect the exact position of the pupil and/or iris, and identify the correct reflections from the illuminators and their exact positions.

Mathematical models of the eye are then used to calculate the eyes’ position in 3D and the point of gaze.

This approach frees the subjects being tracked from having to wear subject-stabilizing equipment.

“By using our natural gaze point as part of our user controls, we can experience a more efficient method of obtaining and sharing information and eliminate an interaction barrier between ourselves and our most valued gadgets,” Eskilsson wrote.

Eskilsson says eye-tracking technology is coming soon to the mass consumer market for home electronics systems, video games, accident prevention systems in cars, and even to help athletes optimize their performance.

02 October 2013

Biomarkers + optics equal a powerful new healthcare capability

Biomarkers are getting a lot of attention lately as a means of monitoring health and diagnosing disease, and it’s no surprise that photonics-based sensing techniques are bringing them into the spotlight. A project named BILOBA is a collaboration funded by the European Commission through its Seventh Framework Programme. The acronym is an abbreviation of “Bloch electromagnetic surface wave bio-sensors for early cancer diagnosis”(!)

BILOBA plans to develop and pre-clinically validate a multifunctional point-of-care platform that is capable of performing real-time cancer biomarker detection in a tandem configuration. Such configuration will utilize label-free detection based on the resonance shift, and the spectral analysis of enhanced fluorescence emitted by biomolecules immobilized on the surface. Utilizing both labeled and label-free analysis on the same sensor system can increase the sensitivity and reliability of optically read out surface-bound assays.

The well-established optical standard method for non-labeled detection is the surface plasmon resonance method. Its sensitivity suffers from the strong absorption of surface-bound waves. A similar concept, already at the proof-of-principle stage, will be advantageously implemented by applying the unique properties of Bloch Surface Waves (BSW) sustained on a 1D Photonic Crystal. Therein, a surface wave without absorption is excited, giving rise to an enormous narrowing of resonances and an associated increase in sensitivity. Furthermore, fluorescence enhancement due to near-field effects will be exploited. By utilizing the dispersion of the BSW both detection schemes will be combined.

The major goal of the project is to explore, design, and set-up BSW systems optimized for analytical sensing, associated with the development of a corresponding analytical instrument. For this purpose, the immobilization protocols and biochemical assays have to be established to ensure an optimized binding site density at the surface and to enable the detection of the target biomarkers. Furthermore, a fluidic system will be developed, which will supply and handle the aqueous analyte solutions while ensuring a high signal-to-noise ratio and robust results even in the case of ultralow concentrations. The platform will be validated by pre-clinical tests on the detection of Angiopoietin-1 and -2, and Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor.

The BILOBA project consists of nine participants from different European countries and with different objectives of participating. The three-year project just completed its first year. Its budget is €4.73 million, including €3.6 million from the European Commission.

On a related note, SPIE Newsroom has just published a timely video about the sensing of biomarkers, with Francesco Baldini of Italy’s Institute of Applied Physics. Baldini chairs a conference on Optical Sensing for SPIE and his lab has been working on numerous types and applications of biosensors for years.