Eyes on Optical Technology

Article excerpt

A nascent technology will s rate the winners from the losers in the race between electronics manufacturers in the 1990s. Whichever firm dominates the field of optoelectronics will win the fierce war already under way in the consumer electronics, telecommunications and computer industries. Optoelectronics-the transmission of electronically generated signals through optical media and their recapture in electronic form-has been around for 20 years in the form of telephone lines. Today, fiber-optic cables carry vast numbers of conversations simultaneously and at high speeds with almost no degradation in quality between locations that can be thousands of miles apart. Fiber-optic links are so far superior to copper cable or even satellite transmission that virtually all the telephone trunk lines in the United States have now been converted to fiber. In the coming decade, the rest of the world will switch to this superior and less expensive technology. Interestingly, optical interconnection technology for long-haul communications is quite mature, but the technologies and markets for short-haul applications are still embryonic. As researchers gain greater understanding, optical links will grow even shorter, bringing higher data rates to smaller components and opening the way for a leap in the power of electronic devices. By the close of the millennium, tiny optical channels in ultra-dense semiconductor chips will move vast data streams between electronic elements at extremely high speeds. Firms that first develop products based on this technology will garner a powerful competitive advantage, reaping the profits of early entry and controlling the manufacture and markets for these powerful optical chips.

Optical technologies offer a number of compelling advantages: * Optical signals travel much faster than electronic signals. Approximately 30 percent of the end-to-end delay experienced by today's fastest supercomputers is due to limits on the speed at which signals can move between chips. Lowering these limits will significantly improve the overall performance of supercomputers. * Optical links will increase the speed of data switching, enabling computers to shift rapidly between various processors and memories. Fast switching will usher in a new generation of much faster computers, highly parallel machines capable of working on many tasks at once. * Signals sent down an opt pathway can be copied to many more subpathways than information conveyed by comparable electronic means. This phenomenon, known as "fan out," allows a source signal to be transmitted simultaneously to thousands of data whose transmission previously required many electronic links. Optoelectronics will reduce pin requirements and open the way for greater communication between chips. …