Rob Devlin, Metalenz: “we can bring equipment that has previously lived in laboratories into everyone's hands”

Since the pandemic caused a digital transformation for many companies and locked everyone at home, the need for technology suitable to use from home has only increased. One type of technology that can help make life easier is meta-optics.

According to Rob Devlin, “We have the ability to bring equipment that has previously lived in scientific or medical laboratories into the palm of every person’s hand. Proliferating these complicated optical modules allows us to eventually change everything from easier home health to improving the security of our personal devices.”

To learn more about meta-optics, what they are, and how they work, Cybernews invited Rob Devlin, the CEO of Metalenz – a company that manufactures meta-optics into high volume applications.

Let’s go back to the very beginning of Metalenz. What was the journey like over the years?

Metalenz was spun out of the group of Federico Capasso at Harvard University where I was doing my Ph.D. Meta-optics had shown great promise in being able to shrink the size of complex optical equipment but no demonstrations had shown the ability to produce high-quality images with a metasurface. In 2016, we demonstrated the first viable meta-optic that could produce high-quality images and this generated a lot of excitement in the optics industry and from investors. On the basis of that demonstration and because of the potentially broad impact of this platform technology, we founded Metalenz. Since then, we’ve been bringing up a mass production process and trying to find the place where we can have the biggest early impact. In some sense, there is so much you can do with this technology that it's easy to get distracted. We chose to focus on 3D sensing as a first market and have secured our first product. Now we get to push the next generation of products and expand into many other exciting areas like autonomous driving, medical imaging, robotics, and machine vision.

Can you introduce us to what you do? What are meta-optics?

Meta-optics are engineered optics that can combine the function of 4 or 5 optical devices into a single planar layer. When we design a meta-optic, we control features at the nanoscale. Since we’re designing features at the nanoscale, our lenses have much greater control of light – we can maintain information from light that normal lenses throw away or that you would need a really large and expensive optical device to capture. In addition, because our lenses are planar, unlike the curved lenses that are traditionally used for cameras, we can fabricate them in the same semiconductor foundries that are making electronics.

What aspects of our daily lives do you think can be greatly improved by meta-optic technology?

Because our meta-optics allow you to greatly reduce the size, complexity, and cost of optical modules, we have the ability to bring equipment that has previously lived in scientific or medical laboratories into the palm of every person’s hand. Proliferating these complicated optical modules allows us to eventually change everything from easier home health to improving the security of our personal devices.

How did the pandemic affect your field of work?In some sense, the fact that everyone has been more remote and has been looking for ways to do more from their own homes has really helped to push our technology forward.

Where can we expect to see meta-optics used more widely in the future?From our work at Metalenz, there will certainly be meta-optics in 3D sensing devices this year. In addition, I think we’ll see meta-optics in everything from autonomous vehicles to robotics, simply because of all the additional information our optics can bring to the algorithms making decisions.

What other new technologies do you hope to see become commonplace soon?

I hope to see more home health monitoring devices and better vital signs monitoring technology. I think wearable technology that can do everything from continuously monitoring glucose levels to checking blood pressure will help to improve people’s quality of life.

In your opinion, why do certain companies hesitate to implement new and innovative solutions, despite all the technological advancements available nowadays?

For large companies, there is always risk associated with adopting new technologies compared to pushing along incumbent solutions. One of the most important things for new technology, no matter how “disruptive” it may be, is that it can be manufactured repeatedly and reliably. Normally this is the biggest challenge to acceptance of new technology. At Metalenz, we overcome this challenge by making our meta-optics in semiconductor foundries that are already servicing these customers.

Talking about cybersecurity, what tools and practices do you think are essential for every company and individual nowadays?I think using robust, secure biometrics is especially important for companies and individuals today. Passwords are constantly being compromised and certain forms of biometrics (simple 2D facial recognition or even fingerprint) don’t provide the level of security required. If robust biometrics can be deployed it will be easier on the user since they won’t have to remember passwords and keep their information more secure.

Would you like to share what’s next for Metalenz?Since we’ve been able to secure the first product, we’re now focusing on how we can have an even broader impact. As a result, we’re now working on bringing forms of sensing to the mobile market which has previously been too large and expensive for such devices. We just recently announced our PolarEyes product that brings full polarization sensing to mobile form factors. With this, we can allow secure facial recognition to everything from laptops to smartwatches and expand into many more cell phones. The PolarEyes product also allows us to start exploring how we can impact home health.

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