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.
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. 8,041,162, issued on October 18, 2011 to Tomophase Corp. of Burlington, MA, discloses a method of using a polarization-maintaining fiber to deliver light at two different trajectories.
According to the ’162 patent, certain medical procedures (e.g., imaging, tomography, spectroscopic measurements, and photodynamic therapy) utilize light delivered to tissue within the patient via an optical fiber of an endoscope or catheter. However, in configurations in which scanning of the light is desirable, it “can be technically difficult because of various limitations … imposed by locations, conditions, geometries, dimensions, or a combination of two or more of these and other factors associated with the target tissue.” The ’162 patent discloses a method of using a polarization-maintaining (PM) fiber to deliver light of two different polarizations to the target tissue in two separate deflection angles and rotating the optics to scan the two polarizations in two different cones. In certain configurations, using a variable angle-of-view scanner that incorporates this invention can be used to “mimic a distal camera, resulting in three-dimensional images of lumenal interiors.”
According to its website, Tomophase “has developed and patented technology in the field of optical coherence tomography (OCT) which is capable of delivering high quality, high resolution cross-sectional tissue images in real time” and “tissue structures can be observed up to 2-3 mm below the surface with remarkable clarity and without biopsy or the use of radiation, UV light or image contrast agents.” This time last year, the company’s OCTIS™ system received its FDA 510(k) clearance to market as an imaging tool to evaluate “human tissue microstructure by providing two-dimensional, cross-sectional, real-time depth visualization.” Tomophase’s successful submission to the FDA cited the OCT Imaging System of Imalux as a previously legally marketed predicate device.
Under U.S. patent law, a patent can include claims directed only to a single invention. If the USPTO reviews a patent application and determines that there are actually multiple inventions being claimed, the USPTO will issue a “Restriction Requirement,” which requires that the applicant identify which of the multiple inventions they wish to pursue in the application. The other inventions can be pursued in one or more “divisional” applications, which are filed afterward but have the same priority date as the originally-filed patent application.
Tomophase’s originally-filed patent application received a “Restriction Requirement” in which the USPTO deemed the claims to include two patentably distinct inventions: the light-delivering device and the method of delivering light. Tomophase elected to pursue the device claims in the originally-filed application, resulting in U.S. Pat. No. 7,706,646, issued in April 2010 (after a first action allowance). On the day before the ’646 patent issued, Tomophase filed a divisional application that resulted in the ’162 patent (again, after a first action allowance). The company appears to be seeking even more patent protection, since it filed a third application as a continuation from the ’162 patent on the same day that the ’162 patent issued.
According to the USPTO database, Tomophase has eleven U.S. patents, three 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 ’332 patent, existing techniques for measuring high speed surface deformations or vibrations use a single laser beam which is scanned across the surface. The movement of the surface can be measured using interferometry to detect the Doppler shift of the light (e.g., in laser Doppler vibrometry or LDV) or changes in the speckle pattern of the reflected light (e.g., in electronic speckle pattern interferometry or ESPI). While these techniques work well for steady-state or well-characterized vibrations, the time in scanning the single beam across the surface being measured can make it difficult to measure transient or non-steady-state vibrations. The ’332 patent discloses a system that uses multiple laser beams to irradiate the surface and a flood reference beam to generate multiple interference signals simultaneously across the two-dimensional surface.
According to MetroLaser’s website, the company’s VibroMet™ multi-beam laser Doppler vibrometers are being used for noise and vibration measurements world-wide in a variety of industrial, military, and space applications (e.g., automobile, aircraft, and even landmine detection).
According to the USPTO database, MetroLaser has 10 U.S. patents, and the ’332 patent is its first in 2011.
According to the ’308 patent, an angle-mapped image is generated at one end of the optical slab by a scanned beam display engine (e.g., a MEMS scanner with one or more light sources), and the image is directed along the optical slab to be outputted at the viewing region located at another end of the optical slab. Such a system can be used in a variety of displays, such as heads-up displays, flat-panel displays, head-mounted or near-to-eye displays, or cell phone displays.
According to its website, Microvision provides a “proprietary display engine, called PicoP®” for use in “the telecommunications, consumer electronics, automotive, and avionics markets.” The PicoP® laser display engine uses “MicroVision’s proprietary single tiny vibrating MEMS silicon mirror to produce an image” which is then directed outward to a front or rear screen for projection display applications and is “small and low power enough to be embedded directly into devices such as smartphones, media players, camcorders and tablets.” MicroVision maintains a blog, providing information on the company’s technology, products, and services.
In its most recent annual report, the company touts its “extensive and highly-rated patent assets,” which includes a patent portfolio of 195 patents and applications directed to laser pico projection and displays purchased last October from Symbol Technologies, Inc., a subsidiary of Motorola, in exchange for 830,000 shares of MicroVision common stock and $550,000. According to the USPTO database, MicroVision was awarded 34 U.S. patents in 2010 (excluding those purchased from Symbol Tech.) and to date, has been awarded 32 U.S. patents in 2011.
According to the ’841 patent, microdisplays, such as digital light processors (DLPs) or liquid crystal displays (LCDs), used in various types of projectors (e.g., rear projection TVs, portable projectors) can be illuminated with multiple high-intensity LEDs. To enhance light extraction from the LED, the surface of the LED can be patterned to spatially vary its dielectric function. The ’841 patent discloses that a non-periodic pattern (e.g., aperiodic pattern, quasicrystalline pattern, Robinson pattern, or Ammann pattern) can be used to good effect.
According to its website, Luminus uses its “Big Chip LED” technology to produce high-performance LEDs for various applications, including lamp-free projectors with lifetimes in excess of 60,000 hours. The company is purportedly considering going public sometime in 2012. According to the USPTO database, Luminus has received two U.S. patents in 2011 (including the ’841 patent), and received 12 U.S. patents in 2010. Luminus has received a total of 52 U.S. patents, 12 of which are U.S. design patents.
Electrophoretic displays (EPDs), also called “electronic paper,” produce an image using pixels containing charged pigment particles which are free to move in a fluid. In response to voltages applied to the pixels, the charged particles selectively redistribute within the fluid to change the reflectivity of the pixels (e.g., white when the voltage is on, black when the voltage is off). Encapsulated electrophoretic displays use tiny microcapsules containing the charged particles and the fluid, and these microcapsules, along with the circuitry to produce the image-producing voltages, can be coated onto a wide variety of substrates. Such displays can even be made on flexible plastic substrates, allowing the displays to be rolled into a cylinder when not in use. The uniformity of the coatings of the microcapsules onto the substrate is a key factor in the quality of the display, and the ’175 patent discloses an improved apparatus and process for depositing the microcapsules onto the substrate.
According to its website, E Ink was founded in 1997 as a spin-off from the MIT Media Laboratory, and was bought in 2009 by Prime View International, Inc., a Taiwanese-based company (now called “E Ink Holdings, Inc.“). The company’s displays have a ”paper-like high contrast appearance,” and can be found in many e-readers, including the Amazon Kindle DX, Sony’s Reader Digital Book, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. E Ink’s displays can also be found in other products as well, such as electronic indicators, watches, keypads, mobile devices, and even large, retail displays.
According to the USPTO database, E Ink was awarded 28 U.S. patents in 2010, and has received 8 U.S. patents so far in 2011, including the ’175 patent.
Anyone who has watched sports on television in the past 30 years has seen a “telestrator” in action. John Madden became famous in part for using telestrations to annotate his football color commentary with X’s, O’s, and arrows to demonstrate the inner workings of the game. The telestrations we are familiar with are displayed on a single television monitor, so they are limited to two-dimensional images. However, for robotic surgery, three-dimensional images are provided by two monitors, which display two complementary images that, when presented to the surgeon’s two eyes, generate a dual-image, stereo-view of the surgical site. According to the ’166 patent, it can be helpful for a mentor (e.g., a teacher or instructor) to provide guidance to the operator of the system using telestrations, but a mono-visual telestration overlaying only one of the images can be difficult to use. The ’166 patent discloses a system and method for generating and displaying three-dimensional, stereo-view telestration graphics using both the left-eye image and the right-eye image.
According to its website, Intuitive Surgical, founded in 1995, is “the global technology leader in robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery (MIS)” and markets the da Vinci Surgical System, the first robotic surgical system cleared by the FDA. Worldwide, there are now almost 1,700 da Vinci systems installed in over 1,500 hospitals. The company’s website includes a number of videos that demonstrate the uses and advantages of the da Vinci system.
UPDATE: For anyone too squemish to watch the da Vinci system being used in an operation, I recently saw this video that shows a da VInci system being used to fold a tiny paper airplane.
As would be expected for such intricate medical devices, Intuitive Surgical holds hundreds of U.S. and foreign patents and hundreds of field-of-use licenses on various aspects of the company’s technology, including the user’s console, robotic arms, vision system, and positioning system. In 2010, the company was awarded 30 U.S. patents, and has received 11 U.S. patents so far in 2011, including the ’166 patent.
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.
Nothing in the Photonics Patents™ blog should be interpreted as legal advice, solicitation for legal work, or assertions regarding the scope or validity of the listed U.S. patents, by me or by anyone else at Knobbe Martens. My comments are solely my own, and are solely based on publicly-available information. In fact, I don't think that I or anyone else at Knobbe Martens has had anything to do with most of the patents that I'll be listing.
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