Acousto-Optical Switches: A Sound Idea

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading

In Burlington, Ontario, today Light Management Group (OTC-BB: LMGR) showed a working demonstration of an optical switch to a collection of reporters, analysts, and a potential customer or two. The company says it is ready to take orders for its new device.

It's a significant development for the industry because, according to LMGR, this switch is the first to be based on acousto-optics, (see Optical Switches Go Acoustic). It's also a significant step for LMGR, as it's the first time that the company has delivered on its promises. This is the third time in two years it has promised to revolutionize the fiber-optic industry, but the first time there's been any evidence that the projects were anything more than hot air.

"It works, it works!" an excited Don Iwacha, LMGR's president told Light Reading.

The switch is configured as working product, though not all the fibers are in use, says Iwacha. The basic module consists of one input fiber and 1024 output fibers -- only a couple of those output fibers were accessible in today's demonstration. Iwacha claims it will be straightforward to address the other fibers by using a more sophisticated control systems come in (the switching fabric stays the same).

If this proves to be the case, then LMGR may have an alternative to MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) and holograms for building large-scale, all-optical switches (see Optical Switching Fabric).

Several hurdles remain. The main technological challenge is to extend the design to work with multiple inputs as well as multiple outputs, says Iwacha. At the moment, a fully connected switch would have to be cobbled together from a mixture of single-to-multiple and multiple-to-single fiber devices, he adds.

And LMGR is going to face another kind of challenge -- communicating its success. The company has gained a bit of a reputation for making outrageous claims that it can't keep. Like the little boy who cried wolf, LMGR may have a hard time convincing the industry it's telling the truth.

And to make matters worse, LMGR has labeled its inventions with indecipherable names. For example, it calls the optical switch a "proprietary commutator" in today's press release (see LMGR Debuts Acousto-Optic Switch). It included whole swaths of pure technobabble in its earlier announcements. This has created a great deal of confusion about exactly what the company is doing.

So, let's set the record straight.

LMGR was formed in 1999 when Laser Show Systems Inc. acquired Triton Acquisition Corp. and renamed itself Light Management Group. Laser Show Systems had expertise in using acousto-optical systems to deflect light beams for outdoor laser projection displays. This background, which is has very little to do with optical networking, may help explain why the company has found it hard to get the right messages across.

Shortly after it was founded, LMGR decided that it could leverage its acousto-optic platform in other industries. It got off to a bad start by claiming that it had filed a patent on a technology for transmitting 65,536 separate channels on a single optical fiber. It also reckoned it would be signing deals with leading equipment manufacturers "in the near future." No such deals have materialized, and to this day there is no evidence of how or when such a technological breakthrough could be achieved.

In April 2000, LMGR made another way-out claim. It announced that it had filed a patent on a device called an "information compressor" (see LMGR Intros Compression Scheme). According to LMGR, this is a new type of optical source that could easily provide thousands of WDM (wavelength-division multiplexing) channels at different wavelengths simultaneously. At the time, LMGR's president Don Iwacha was confident that a demonstrator would be built by the end of 2000. But when Light Reading asked him about this recently, he said merely that there was no demonstrator yet, and he had no fixed date when it would be ready.

To sum up, there are three separate inventions. (Incidentally, they're all the product of the same person's fevered imagination: LMGR's chief engineer Gennadii Ivtsenkov.) Iwacha says that the company is now making an all-out effort to bring the acousto-optic switch to market and has left the other two ideas on the back burner.

"[Those ideas] turned out to be more difficult than we first thought," he says. "Now we've got to the stage where instead of announcing the ideas, we're going to be waiting until we can announce products."

-- Pauline Rigby, senior editor, Light Reading

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