Can `New Frontier' Optoelectronics Bridge Gap of Expectations, Hype?

Article excerpt

MICROSOFT Corporation is trying to set a new standard for encyclopedias by putting sound and video on its multimedia compact disc encyclopedia. But the company has to be selective, because only so much sound and video can fit on one CD.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant is not the only one facing this storage challenge. United States Census Bureau data on Washington State can fit on one disc; California's data requires several CDs, for example.

As the information age moves forward, technology is making it easier to zap ideas around, but progress in some areas does not match expectations and hype. The goal of Microsoft founder Bill Gates - "information at your fingertips" - remains elusive.

A field of research known as optoelectronics promises to help bridge the gap. The technology taps capabilities of light and electronics. It could capture global markets with $230 billion in annual sales in the next decade, an industry group says. "{Optoelectronics} is ... perhaps the most significant set of new technologies since semiconductors," says David Cheney, executive director, Optoelectronics Industry Development Association. Four key markets are data storage (such as CDs, which use laser light to read information), flat-panel displays (used in portable computers), fiber-optic communications, and hard copy (such as laser printers, copiers, and scanners).

Industry group members say they hope that in the next cycle of product development they will not be left behind by overseas competitors. That is what happened with flat-panel-display technology, developed a few decades ago in America but now manufactured almost wholly by Japanese firms. They started producing pocket calculators and digital watches and now make virtually all portable computer screens. In such an industry, with high start-up costs, the presence of high-volume producers such as Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sharp can make potential competitors think twice.

To help nudge American companies to take a second look, the Clinton administration recently announced a $580 million program to foster a domestic display industry. The industry association applauds the move, arguing that some cooperation among companies, universities, and government is needed in all four main areas of optoelectronics.

While the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency views domestic production in several areas as crucial to national security, critics are skeptical of government getting too involved in developing commercial products. …