Optical solutions are revolutionizing the way we interact with machines

Close man/machine interaction is becoming the new “normal”. Specific interface functions and advanced user experiences are realized with a variety of smart optical technologies at smallest form factors.

The way we engage with electronic devices has changed significantly over recent years. We interact quite intuitively with the most diverse devices in many aspects of our everyday lives, from checking the news on our smartphone in the morning to working closely with a semi- or fully-autonomous robot throughout the day. Close man/machine interaction is becoming the new “normal”. Besides specific interfacing functionality, this calls for additional aspects to be covered such as styling and design, cost effectiveness, robustness and intuitive operation to name just a few. 

ams OSRAM sensing and lighting technologies actively shape the way we capture and interact with the world. Clemens Mueller, Senior Director Application Marketing, is one of our leading experts.

Clemens, optical technologies are indispensable for any smart interaction. What functionality is most interesting right now?

Many functionalities based on optical technologies have become standard features in the last few years: miniaturized imaging and projection solutions in the infrared spectrum have led to innovations in the way we unlock doors, open up displays or access online banking by using biometric authentication methods like iris or face recognition. 
Autonomous machines such as mobile robots require navigation and smart collision avoidance solutions which are realized with embedded 3D vision systems in various ways: active stereovision, structured light or time-of-flight based optical sensing solutions with safe integration of laser emitters and detectors to name just a few. Enabling machines to thoroughly understand the environments they are working in is an important aspect in their coexistence with humans. 
Advanced projection solutions, which allow machines to indicate their intended actions, make it easier for humans to anticipate and adapt their own behavior accordingly, such as stepping out of the way if a mobile robot indicates early enough that it is going to take a turn within the next few meters. 
As mentioned above, it is not just about adding more control and status lights; innovative man/machine interfaces must support intuitive interaction with those machines. 

What exciting changes in functionality will result from optical technologies?

Smart surfaces are providing the basis for a completely new set of functions for man/machine interaction. They are a combination of very small form factor LED technologies and optical sensing. The invisible LEDs allow user-defined surface patterns to be displayed, which could be dedicated to styling aspects or context-sensitive controls. If paired with proximity sensing or optical force sensing, controls within complex menu options could be hidden if not relevant in the current context. 
Optical force sensing in particular, which provides switching functions as part of a device’s housing, achieves the highest level of dirtproof or waterproof control. This aspect became increasingly important during the COVID pandemic as devices had to be frequently disinfected. 
Traditional mechanical control switches did not allow for this and required additional coating. Unfortunately, repeated cleaning always carried the risk of aging the surface’s color. Embedded capacitive or resistive controls suffer from a lack of flexibility and operational robustness. We are all aware of how poorly a capacitive switch like a dimmer often works if it is operated by sweaty fingers or a hand wearing a glove. 
Smart surfaces combined with optical force sensing open up a completely new range of opportunities for stylish design, robust and flexible switching and simple, cost-effective user guidance in context-sensitive controls.

Another groundbreaking optical technology is spectral sensing, ranging from the UV-A/B/C spectrum to visible light and on to the near and short-wave infrared spectrum. In the past bulky, complex and extremely expensive spectroscopic equipment was needed for this. Now everything is tightly integrated within smallest packages at attractive pricing which allows high volume  deployment. UV spectral sensing enables skin exposure to UV radiation to be monitored, or disinfection targets based on UV-C treatment to be verified. 
Entirely new applications are being evaluated involving the detection of unwanted partial discharges in electric motors and high-voltage power grids. Spectral sensors in the visible to short-wave infrared range can be used to measure humidity and, in combination with machine learning algorithms, can even distinguish between different kinds of material. This is relevant for example for automated floor cleaning or where objects of the same shape and/or color need to be selectively picked by a robot. A traditional camera system would be of little help or would require additional compute-intense resources.

This still sounds a bit like science fiction. What still needs to be done in optical technologies to make it all possible?

Funnily enough, many of these technologies are available now and feasibility studies are already being conducted to explore new applications or functions which previously could not be realized in a cost-effective way or which could not be viably used because of system overheads, size and weight. 
Often it is important to mentally branch off from traditional solution concepts and restart ideation based on innovative optical solutions with integrated emitters and detectors. 
Instead of separating the functional aspects of illumination or display from their sensing components, the smaller form factors of emitters and sensors allow closer integration to unlock these new functions.

To redefine user experiences, a wide variety of technologies need to work together in a very small space. We develop solutions for tomorrow’s applications – today.