The creation of the first-ever laser-written light-guiding system that is efficient enough to be developed for commercial use looks set to open up new ways of working with your smartphone by embedding the glass with layer upon layer of sensors.

Laser-Written Sensors Embedded in Your Smartphone Screen Set to Widen its Range of Uses

“We're opening up Pandora's box at the moment,” says Raman Kashyap, a professor of electrical engineering and engineering physics at the École Polytechnique Montreal in Canada, an engineering research school, describing the potential for the technique that he has been researching in partnership with New York-based glass manufacturer Corning Incorporated. The technique, described in a scientific paper co-authored by Professor Kashyap, is to use lasers to carve out transparent pathways – called waveguides – directly into the glass screen of your smartphone. This approach opens the way for new applications running directly from the phone screen. The researchers have so far used their new technique to build two separate see-through systems – a temperature sensor and a new mechanism for authenticating a smartphone by using infrared light – into the highly robust glass that is used nowadays in most smartphones.

New applications incorporated into the screen

To create their see-through temperature-sensing and phone-authentication systems, the Montreal researchers turned to photonic devices – i.e. devices whose functionality is based on light. They used lasers to carve out transparent pathways, known as waveguides, into the glass. These waveguides act as tunnels which channel light and can thus form the basis for a wide range of applications. For example, when a sensor is programmed to measure temperature, it actually measures how the light that emerges from one waveguide interferes with light from the other. Although lasers have been used to make photonic waveguides before, this is the first time anyone has applied the technique to Gorilla® Glass, an extra-tough glass with high internal stress and low irregularity developed by Corning, which is now being used in billions of electronic devices. This disruptive technology might lead smartphone manufacturers to equip screens with sensors capable of taking your temperature, assessing your blood sugar levels if you are diabetic, or even mapping your DNA.

Embedding computing ability into all types of glass

“We’re actively looking to partner with industry to exploit this technology,” reveals Raman Kashyap, claiming that with focused development the two systems could potentially be integrated commercially into smartphones within a year. This new approach could also eventually mean that computing/IT devices will be embedded into all types of glass surfaces such as windows and table tops. These could in the near future be found in both homes and companies incorporated into any type of object capable of receiving laser-written patterns, forming the basis for new applications such as authenticating/securing financial transactions. Now that developers are rushing to design apps for the operating systems of the various smartphones on the market – in five years, the number of downloads from Apple’s App Store has increased from 10 million to 50 billion – this technology is likely to have great potential.

By Arthur de Villemandy