The Future Has Arrived for Meta-Optic

As 2022 draws to a close, it’s natural to think about what to expect from 2023. I’m primarily interested in technology. No doubt there will be continued improvements that provide immediate benefit, as well as breakthroughs that promise changes a decade or so in the future. I’m focused on something in between, a technology that’s been around for about 20 years that has the potential to explode into the general consciousness in 2023, and to be transformative over the next decade: meta-optics.

Simply put, meta-optics are flat surfaces that can act as lenses. This may seem rudimentary, but don’t forget that lenses in telescopes and microscopes were key drives of the development of modern science and are used in many devices today — eyeglasses, phones, cars, cameras. Modern lenses are little different from those of 500 years ago, and unlike nearly everything else, cannot be made smaller or thinner.

Meta-optic devices are far more than replacements for current lenses. For one, lenses cannot be made small or flat, and it takes many lenses for the most useful purposes. Your phone probably has six lenses, which is why it can’t be as thin as a credit card. Another difference is curved lenses are slow steps in many manufacturing processes, ground one at a time. In principle, meta-optics can be produced more cheaply and directly at industrial scale, giving vision to all kinds of products.

The meta-optics you buy or use in 2023 will likely be replacements for lenses that have certain advantages for cars, medical devices, scanners, industrial fabricators and other products. You might not notice them, but you can look forward to possibilities like:

  • Clunky devices including binoculars, telescopes, 3D headsets, heads-up displays and cameras transforming into a single wearable device no heavier than eyeglasses.
  • 3D vision built into every appliance — not crude motion detectors such as public bathroom soap dispensers but the kind of awareness that supports sophisticated functions like your thermostat seeing you put on a sweater or your lamp focusing light on your book or someone entering the room.
  • Your appliances communicating with each other and you using light rather than more primitive WiFi or Bluetooth.
  • On the downside, there may be no more privacy in the meta-optical age, you can be sure the world’s secret police forces are following the field closely.