Optical Computers Are Well Within Sight

Researchers trying to develop ultraswift computers have had high hopes for optical systems. These would replace the data-carrying electrons used in today's machines with photons, which travel at the speed of light and can move even more data. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have developed an optical system that recognizes visual patterns much faster than conventional supercomputers can.

The prototype, developed from missile guidance work, uses a so-called acousto-optic image correlator that can compare a live video scene with 256 stored image "templates" and determine within a second whether a pattern is present. The device encodes live video information into sound waves, which in turn interact with photons carrying the stored template data. As a result, thousands of points from the two images are compared simultaneously.

Because optical systems draw much less power than electronic computers, researchers are confident they can shrink the system to shoebox size. Project supervisor K. Terry Stalker believes that commercial uses--such as robot vision systems--may be three to five years away.

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