Due to the diffraction limit, resolution in conventional optical microscopy is limited so that features have to be larger than about one-half wavelength to be resolved. In contrast, near-field scanning optical microscopy is able to image smaller features since its resolution is not diffraction-limited. An NSOM scans a small optical tip (e.g., at the end of an optical waveguide) that serves as a light source in close proximity to the surface being imaged, and utilizes the evanescent field in the near-field region to detect the surface features. The ’268 patent discloses an optical tip that has values of the refractive indices of the core and cladding of the waveguide which result in high energy throughput for near-field scanning operations and faster scanning speeds, with low localized heating at the probe.
According to its website, OptoNet “develops advanced, innovative photonic chips and modules based on proprietary approaches to monolithic integration of InP photonic devices” and “Si packaging platform design for avionic applications,” and its customers include the Navy and Air Force. OptoNet has ties with Northwestern University’s Nano-Photonics and Quantum Electronics group. For example, the inventors of the ’268 patent include Northwestern’s Professor S.T. Ho and Yingyan Huang, a former Ph.D. candidate, now President of OptoNet.
The company received a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) “Phase I” grant in 2008 of $100,000 from the National Science Foundation for developing an NSOM probe “utilizing an innovative high-refractive-index nanoscale waveguide (nanoWG) as the probing tip,” which sounds like the invention disclosed by the ’268 patent. More recently, the company received a 2011 SBIR Phase I grant of $150,000 from the Department of Energy for developing a “proof-of-concept prototype,” with future work planned to develop ”a full series of ultra-high-power NSOM probe modules” that are plug-compatible with current NSOM probes.
According to the USPTO database, OptoNet owns four U.S. patents, three of which have been received in 2012.
U.S. Patent No. 8,162,737, issued on April 24, 2012 to IGT of Reno, NV, discloses a “photonic-powered” player card for keeping track of a gambler’s activities.
According to the ’737 patent, the ability of a casino operator to maximize their operating profits and keep their customers happy is linked in part to their ability to provide rewards or “comps” to their customers commiserate with their value to the casino (i.e., how much money they gamble). Currently, casinos use a “player card” system which uses a card with a magnetic strip (similar to a credit card) which is swiped to identify the player and to track the player’s activity. The ’737 patent explains that magnetic-striped cards can only hold a limited amount of information, must be swiped through a contact-based reader, and they don’t provide the player with easily-discernable information.
The “photonic-powered” card disclosed by the ’737 patent includes a photovoltaic cell which can receive light to provide power to the card and a bi-directional optical interface (with photodetectors and/or LEDs) for contactless communication with the gaming machine (e.g., slot machine, blackjack table). Other features disclosed by the ’737 patent for the card include non-volatile memory, a liquid-crystal display (LCD), and a touch screen. Since such an optical communication card would use “line of sight” communication, it is described by the ’737 patent as being more secure than RFID technology which, while contactless, is omnidirectional and more prone to having its signals intercepted. As interesting as this technology might seem, IGT apparently wasn’t sufficiently interested in it to warrant filing further continuation applications to pursue additional claim scope covering the technology.
According to its website, IGT is a publicly-traded company that “has been the leading company specializing in design, development, manufacturing, distribution, and sales of computerized gaming equipment, software, and network systems worldwide” since 1981. Patents are certainly a crucial factor in IGT’s protection of their innovations. The company has received 117 U.S. patents so far in 2012, and received 271 patents in 2011. The company also is willing to assert its patents against perceived infringers.
I was interested to see that IGT’s website includes a page by which anyone can submit ideas and suggestions to the company. The page includes a link to an idea submission agreement that, among other provisions, cautions potential submitters that IGT can use the information any way it wishes, and that the only protections the submitter has are those available under the patent and copyright laws of the United States. In other words, the odds are stacked in favor of the house.
According to the ’091 patent, micro-lenses can increase the optical efficiency of image sensors, such as charge-coupled devices (CCDs) or CMOSactive pixel sensors, and can reduce the cross-talk between pixel cells. Conventional micro-lenses use curved surfaces to refract and focus the received light onto the corresponding pixels. As the size of pixels gets smaller, the size of the micro-lenses must also decrease, which results in a degradation of performance. The photonic crystal lenses disclosed by the ’091 patent are described as using negative refraction, which can avoid the need for a curved surface to focus the light. Free of the constraint of curved surfaces, photolithographic techniques can be used to fabricate flat, photonic crystal lenses that are aligned with the underlying pixels with horizontal dimensions that are the same as those of the pixels.
According to its website, Aptina Imaging is “the synthesis of foundational CMOS image sensor technology, stunning innovation, and second-to-none manufacturing quality.” The company began as Photobit Corp. in 1995, started by a team of Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers, and was the first source of commercial CMOS image sensors. In 2001, Photobit was acquired by Micron Technology, and Aptina Imaging was spun out as an independent privately held company in 2009. A short video explains the evolution of the company from its JPL roots to present day.
According to the USPTO database, Aptina Imaging recieved 93 US patents in 2011, and 28 in the first three months of 2012.
According to Headwall’s website, the company “has been at the forefront of hyperspectral imaging since 1994″ and “[w]ith its patented, aberration-corrected Hyperspec™ sensors, the company has established a worldwide reputation for exceptional imaging performance.” Using hyperspectral imaging, spectral data at wavelengths outside the range seen by the human eye are acquired and the generated images distinguish items within the sensor’s field of view based on their chemical composition. Headwall touts its RECON™ handheld sensor as being ruggedized and providing “very rapid hyperspectral scene rendering of small targets at distances up to 1.5 kilometers.” Its defense and security uses are explained as allowing a user ”to spectrally resolve a 6 by 6 inch target from a distance of one mile” such as “a face in a treeline.” Last year, Headwall’s “Hyperspec™ Point & Stare” sensor was a finalist for the 2010 Prism Award in the same category.
According to the USPTO database, the latest U.S. patent awarded to Headwall was U.S. Pat. No. 7,518,722 in 2009, and there are not any published applications assigned to Headwall. Perhaps the company has stopped filing patents, or perhaps they are filing their patent applications via an unidentified subsidiary or “holding company.”
A military technology summary on its website describes the MEPAD system as “a compact, field-ready pathogen detection system that implements a full ELISA sandwich assay in a microfluidic format,” that is powered by a USB connection, and ”can detect an array of biological and chemical threats, and identify them within a 1/2 hour processing time.” The system was described back in April 2011 as including “a disposable microfluidic chip,” “a highly sensitive portable microfluidic fluorescence measurement unit that also controls the flow of samples and reagents through the microfluidic channels of the chip,” ”a commercial 635-nm diode laser, an avalanche photodiode (APD) that measures fluorescence, and three filtering mirrors that provide more than 100 dB of excitation line suppression in the signal detection channel.” In 2006, Physical Optics received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant from the Department of Homeland Security of nearly $100,000 to develop the MEPAD system, which is “based on a novel, disposable, microfluidic lab-on-a-chip (LOC) that performs conventional ELISA and is equipped with a unique fiber optic measurement system.”
According to the USPTO database, Physical Optics owns more than 100 U.S. patents, and numerous pending U.S. patent applications, but I was unable to find any that described the MEPAD system. This could mean that such a U.S. patent application does not exist, but it could also be that the patent application has not yet been made public by the USPTO. Under current U.S. patent law, U.S. patent applications are published 18 months after their earliest priority date, so a search will not turn up the application until then. Furthermore, if an applicant plans to only file a U.S. patent application, then the applicant can request that the USPTO not published the patent application at all. This way, the contents and the existence of the patent application can be kept secret, until the application eventually issues as a U.S. patent, at which time the U.S. patent is made available to the public.
There are conditions under which even a U.S. patent is kept secret from the public. When a technology of a U.S. patent application is deemed to be sensitive enough, a “secrecy order” is imposed that keep the existence and the content of the patent application and its resulting U.S. patent secret in the interest of national security. We can be sure that a patent application describing the MEPAD system isn’t subject to a secrecy order, because if there were such an order, Physical Optics wouldn’t be able to present its system at the Photonics West conference.
According to its website, the micro-Z is “a compact, handheld, battery-powered Terahertz Time Domain spectrometer which has the total freedom of operation previously unattainable with stationary instruments” and “can be targeted for a variety of on-site inspection tasks using THz waves, including real-time chemical identification.” A company video shows the micro-Z in action.
Zomega’s Chairman and President is Dr. Xi-Cheng Zhang, recent winner of the IEEE Photonics Society’s 2011 William Streifer Scientific Achievement Award. Dr. Zhang is inventor or co-inventor on 26 U.S. patents, many of which are assigned to Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, where Dr. Zhang is the Eric Josson Professor of Science. Reviewing the titles of Dr. Zhang’s U.S. patents and pending patent applications, only one is directed to a compact THz spectrometer (US2009/0066948 A1, now abandoned), which is assigned to Hydroelectron Ventures, Inc. (HEV) of Westmount, Quebec, Canada. A video on HEV’s website explains that Zomega has partnered with Hydroelectron Ventures on a THz “spectroscopy at a distance” imaging system.
If you like, you can register your guess regarding which product you think will win the Prism Award in the poll below. There is not much to go on in terms of U.S. patents, but I’m guessing that Headwall Photonics will win this year.
Also, if you’re planning on being at the Photonics West conference and are interested in talking about patents, I’d enjoy meeting you, so feel free to contact me at @Itchkawitz or at bsi “at” kmob “dot” com.
U.S. Patent No. 8,014,871, issued on September 6, 2011 to Cochlear Limited, of Macquarie University, New South Wales, Australia, discloses an interferometry-based microphone that can be part of an implanted prosthetic hearing device.
Cochlear implants are prosthetic hearing devices that have been successful in restoring hearing in individuals whose deafness is due to impairment of the inner ear (cochlea) but who still have an operable neural auditory path to the brain. Such cochlear implants utilize an array of stimulation electrodes implanted into the cochlea and controlled by a sound processor worn on the outside of the scalp. The sound processor uses inductive coupling to transmit signals indicative of detected sound through the skull to the stimulation electrodes. The electrodes then stimulate a working portion of the neural auditory path, which are interpreted as sounds by the individual’s brain. My mom has cochlear implants in both of her ears, and they have greatly improved her quality of life.
According to the ’871 patent, totally implantable prosthetic hearing systems promise to provide more improved sound quality, but there can be challenges in the use of a totally-implantable microphone, such as “optimizing the coupling of sound between the tissue and the device, size restrictions due to the space available in the target implant location such as the middle ear, and the need to deliver sufficient gain to aid severe hearing loss.” The ’871 patent discloses a system in which sound vibrations of a portion of the biocompatible housing are detected by two interferometers configured to detect two sound frequency ranges. According to the ’871 patent, ”[t]he use of an interferometer microphone results in a substantially more robust and sensitive prosthetic hearing device” which can use a relatively thick diaphragm which is less prone to damage during manufacture, handling, and implantation.
According to its website, Cochlear Limited is an Australia-based company with a “history of innovation,” based on the pioneering work of Dr. Graeme Clark. This history of innovation is borne out by the USPTO database, which lists 144 U.S. patents issued to Cochlear Limited since 1995, 36 of which have issued in 2011.
As explained by the ’833 patent, the human eye is capable of “accommodation“: the ability to selectively focus on objects at various distances by deforming the lens of the eye via contraction of the ciliary muscle. However, treatment of patients suffering from cataracts often includes surgically removing the lens and replacing it with a plastic intraocular lens (“IOL”). While certain IOLs are designed to provide some measure of accommodation, they are certainly not as adept at it as is a natural lens. The ’833 patent describes an IOL that is intended be an improvement over existing systems. The IOL of the ’833 patent does this by estimating the distance to a object being viewed using a “rangefinder” based on the size of the pupil. By using a photodetector to measure changes in the incident light intensity and distribution, thereby determining the pupil size, and using an empirical relationship between the pupil size and ocular convergence (the rotation of the eyes in a direction towards one another), the IOL of the ’833 patent estimates the distance of the object being viewed. The IOL can then adjust its focus by applying an appropriate voltage to the electroactive material of the lens to change its refractive index.
According to its website, Elenza is “developing the world’s first electronic ‘AutoFocal’ Intraocular Lens” which uses “a proprietary combination of liquid-crystal chemistry, electricity, and integrated-circuitry to create smart optics, which will provide patients with the ability to see more naturally and clearly over the full range of vision.” Earlier this year, Elenza announced that it has completed a $24 million Series B round of financing for clinical development and commercialization of its “patented Electro-active AutoFocal Intraocular Lens.” According to a recent article, Elenza’s IOL is a year away from testing a prototype and two years from clinical trials in Europe.
According to the USPTO database, the ’833 patent is Elenza’s first U.S. patent.
According to the ’434 patent, previous phase-detection inspection systems for semiconductor manufacturing utilized the spatial fringe technique which is ”susceptible to system noise, has higher costs for image processing, and is limited by the sampling of the fringe.” The system disclosed by the ’434 patent seeks to improve the interferometric contrast between the defects and the non-defective portions of the specimen by using a test beam and a reference beam both reflected from the specimen.
According to its website, KLA-Tencor is “the world’s leading supplier of process control and yield management solutions for the semiconductor and related microelectronics industries.” KLA-Tencor’s VisEdge™ wafer edge inspection and metrology systems are touted as “utiliz[ing] innovative technology to meet edge-defect inspection and edge metrology requirements for development and volume production of wafers and ICs,” and includes “[e]nhanced performance on low-contrast films.” This description sounds like it could be referring to the invention of the ’434 patent.
In 2010, the company received 131 U.S. patents, and in 2009 received 118 U.S. patents. So far in 2011, KLA-Tencor has been awarded 47 U.S. patents, including the ’434 patent and U.S. Pat. No. 7,924,892 (“Fiber amplifier based light source for semiconductor inspection”), which was issued on the same day.
Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) is a remote optical sensing technology for various applications, including atmospheric research. For example, LIDAR can be used in ceilometers, which measure cloud elevations or cloud ceiling levels, which can be important in aviation and weather forecasting. According to the ’044 patent, a typical LIDAR system includes a pulsed light source, a detector, and timing circuitry to measure the time interval between the transmission of a light pulse and its detection after being reflected from the cloud. The ’044 patent discloses a LIDAR apparatus that uses optical fibers to achieve an optimum coaxial configuration (i.e., transmitted and reflected light propagate along the same axis) that is “more compact … and allows separation of the optical assembly from the electronic assembly for ease of manufacturing and maintenance” while being less affected by internal cross-talk or back reflections of the transmitted beam.
According to its website, Oceanit Labs is “one of Hawaii’s largest and most diversified science and engineering companies,” and lists the State of Hawaii, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, U.S. Missile Defense Agency, National Science Foundation, and NASA as its clients. A video on the company’s website explains that Oceanit has spun off various start-up companies, each focusing on a particular product/technology. One of Oceanit’s spin-offs, Safe Sky Technologies, “designs and develops next-generation ceilometers and ceilometer systems with 3D-scanning capabilities.”
According to the USPTO database, Oceanit has been granted 23 U.S. patents, including four in 2010, and two so far in 2011 (including the ’044 patent).
According to the ’890 patent, a Michelson interferometer can be used to perform Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy by transmitting broadband infrared light into the interferometer, modulating the path length of one of the interferometer’s arms, and irradiating the material under study with the resulting light. The inverse Fourier transform of the temporal signal from detecting the light after interacting with the material under study yields a spectrum which can be used to identify the constituents of the material. The ’890 patent discloses a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) interferometer in which the mirrors are patterned from a substrate and one or more of the mirrors is biased by a spring and locked in place.
According to its website, Block Engineering is privately-owned and its FTIR spectrometers are “installed in and around Washington, DC to protect critical infrastructure from chemical terrorist attacks.”
Its website also states that its ”patent pending MEMS miniaturization technologies are enabling breakthrough new products, like the ChemPen™, a pen-size, battery-operated FTIR sensor which can detect essentially any gas, liquid or solid.” The ChemPen™ is designed to have “small size (8 inches), low weight (8 oz), low power consumption and expected very low cost” and “is intended to detect and identify all Chemical Warfare Agents and Toxic Industrial Chemicals under field conditions” for military, homeland security, and life safety applications. Block Engineering is developing the ChemPen™ under a $4.5 million contract from the U.S. Army Research Office.
According to the ’233 patent, thermal infrared detectors are based on changes of a physical quantity (e.g., electrical resistance, electrical voltage, thermal expansion) that is dependent on temperature changes induced by incident infrared radiation. Regardless of the mechanism used to detect the infrared radiation, the pixels of such detectors generally include a portion that absorbs the incident radiation and a portion that coverts the resulting temperature change into a measurable physical quantity.
The pixel structure disclosed by the ’233 patent utilizes the thermo-optic effect in which the refractive index of a semiconductor material is dependent on its temperature. The pixels experience changes in their refractive index which are detected by monitoring the coupling strength of a probe light beam to surface plasmon polaritons (SPPs) in the pixel. SPPs are electromagnetic excitations near a surface/interface that propagate in a direction parallel to the surface/interface. As such, they are very sensitive to the refractive index in the region of the surface/interface. Therefore, pixels that have absorbed infrared radiation exhibit a different coupling of the probe beam to SPPs than do pixels that have not absorbed infrared radiation. This difference in coupling strength manifests differences in the reflectivity of the pixels (detected by reflecting the probe beam off the pixel array onto a CCD detector), which can be used to determine the distribution of the detected infrared radiation across the pixel array.
One of the inventors of the ’233 patent is Prof. Lionel Kimerling of MIT. According to data from MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, Prof. Kimerling is a prolific inventor listed on more than 50 of MIT’s “patents available for licensing.” The TLO provides its community with helpful guides regarding the tech transfer process at MIT and regarding startup companies.
The Photonics Patents™ blog is my personal blog. I am a patent attorney at Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear LLP ("Knobbe Martens"), but the Photonics Patents™ blog is intended to be used merely for informational purposes only; it contains no legal advice whatsoever. Publication of the Photonics Patents™ blog does not create an attorney-client relationship.
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