Breakthrough in modulating light with silicon could enable new teleproduction techniques

As broadcasters continue to grapple with all of the implications of covering sporting events in an HD world, an announcement yesterday from Intel may give them reason to pause and contemplate what might be possible in the not so far-off future.

Scientists from Intel reported in the Feb. 12 edition of the journal Nature about the development of a silicon manufacturing process to create a fast photonic modulator –a transistor-like device that can encode data onto a light beam. The development is seen as an important step that could lead to low-cost, high-bandwidth fiber optic connections among PCs, servers, and eventually inside computers.

"This is a significant step toward building optical devices that move data around inside a computer at the speed of light," said Patrick Gelsinger, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Intel. "It is the kind of breakthrough that ripples across an industry over time enabling other new devices and applications. It could help make the Internet run faster, build much faster high-performance computers and enable high bandwidth applications like ultra-high-definition displays or vision recognition systems."

Some have speculated that the development could eventually lead to entirely new teleproduction techniques that place viewers in viewer-selectable virtual stadium seats with HD-quality views of the field. Others simply see it as a critical step to achieving faster, improved, secure communications among computers.

To achieve their results, Intel researchers split a beam of light into two separate beams as it passed through silicon. Using a novel transistor-like device to hit one beam with an electric charge, they induced a phase shift.

When the two beams of light were re-combined the phase shift induced between the two arms made the light exiting the chip go on and off at over 1 GHz (one billion bits of data per second), 50 times faster than previously produced on silicon. This on and off pattern of light can be translated into the 1's and 0's needed to transmit data.

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