Sunday, September 27, 2009

the odd case of Light Blue Optics

Light Blue Optics is one of those young companies with an exciting technology that all of the gadget sites want to write about. Imagine a normal-size cell phone that could project a touch-sensitive picture on any wall or table top. You could use it to show movies, give quick presentations, make video calls, or, with a projected keyboard, just use it as a computer.

But is this cool new technology for real or is it just a promise intended to relieve unwary investors of excess capital? Now, the technology of miniature laser projection, in general terms, is for real. VKB has been selling their virtual keyboards for years (I even own one) and another company, Microvision, has demonstrated a real device. Laser-projected images is old stuff. The only real challenge is the miniaturization. But is the peculiar 2D hologram technology of LBO for real? Everyone assumes that it is, but I've seen some disturbing warning signs.

Ever go to a company website and after reading some of it, start to think that it looks fishy? That's the feeling I got from the LBO site. Now, I'm not an optical engineer and I don't know the inside scoop on this company, so I'm not saying affirmatively that LBO's technology doesn't really exist, I am only saying that I'm suspicious.

What first made me smell something fishy was the overall impression that I got from the website. None of the issues alone would mean much, but taken together, they form a suspicious pattern. And the suspicious pattern led me to a more thorough investigation which I'll detail later.

Here are the things that seemed fishy to me. First is the news that is highlighted on their starting page. This is supposed to be an exciting new technology company about to come out with a revolutionary new technology --and the news they see fit to highlight is how good they are doing at attracting investors. It looks like whoever is in charge of marketing at LBO views the technology as a secondary consideration.

Second, various other aspects of the site seem more aimed at investors than at customers. For example their "vision" is "to become the world's leading supplier of miniature projection systems". A company with a revolutionary product in the near future should be focused on customers. They should have a vision like "to produce the world's best, brightest, most efficient, and least expensive miniature projection devices". If they really do have something great then the investors will come to them; they won't need the hard sell.

Third, the explanations of the technology are vague and fishy. They have several white papers on the site. The three that I downloaded and read are about the applications of the technology; they are written for a non-technical audience. But they all include a section on the technology (pretty much the exact same text and pictures for each paper) where they give scary mathematical formulas and assume that the reader is familiar with advanced optics, vector equations, and Fourier transforms. Clearly the author expects almost all of his readers to scan quickly past this part and be left with the impression that there is a detailed explanation in the paper that is beyond their comprehension. But there isn't a detailed explanation. I don't fully understand those sections either, but I understand enough to see that there are nothing but some basic formulas of interest only to theoreticians and some vigorous hand-waving. I conclude that these papers are deliberately intended to make non-technical readers think that they have been shown a detailed technical explanation when they haven't.

Fourth, there are several references to patented technology, but no patent numbers. Why not? Anyone who has the resources to compete with LBO can easily find the patents if they exist, so there is no reason not to give them. And giving patent numbers lets your non-technical readers see that you actually do have a patent and lets your technical readers evaluate how significant the patents really are.

Fifth, the emphasis on "holograms" seems designed to be deceptive. Everyone in the world thinks "3D" when you say "hologram". I can't help but speculate that when the company started out they really did intend to sell investors on the idea of a laser 3D holographic display and that when this became untenable, they invented the idea of 2D holograms as a fallback position. But, that's only speculation. Maybe they really did start out intending to cause confusion between 2D and 3D.

These warning signs, and a few others, led me to do a bit more research. That research revealed some more warning signs.

* LBO supposedly had a lab-based demo going back as far as December, 2003. This demo already had their revolutionary algorithm implemented in hardware, which means that the production step to a chip is very quick. But the reporter doesn't say that he saw the demo, only that it exists. I wonder. Still, LBO seemed to think that the technology was close enough to justify starting a buzz in the tech world. Today, five and half years later, Light Blue Optics is still not shipping.

* LBO supposedly was providing evaluation kits to technology companies back in January, 2006. Those kits are supposed to be at least fully functional prototypes so that other companies can design products around it. But today, three and a half years later, Light Blue Optics is still not shipping.

* LBO announced a product line back in January, 2008 but today, 18 months later, Light Blue Optics is still not shipping.

* In January, 2009, one year after it "announced a product line" and three years after it was supposedly offering evaluation kits, LBO announced that "it will demonstrate its latest miniature projection systems to key customers and strategic partners". Not an open demo, but a controlled demo to a specially-chosen audience. There is something inconsistent in this time line.

* Now that other companies are coming out with real products in this area, Light Blue Optics is trying to change the game. They've started talking about touch-enabled projections. This could be a response to slipping shipping schedules, but if they can't ship even the technology that they have been working on for the past 5+ years, why are they adding new complexity which will delay the product even more? That is at the very least abysmally poor judgment. Come out with a solid competitive product as soon as you can, even if it is no longer the knockout that you were aiming at. And once you have proven yourself, then add the bells and whistles.

* They claim that their patents came out of research at the Photonics and Sensors Group at the University of Cambridge. But of the four researchers who supposedly came up with this technology, only one (assuming that Nic Lawrence is N. A. Lawrence) had any publications with that group. And none of those publications are directly related to the LBO technology. So apparently, this revolutionary technology was invented by four minor researchers who didn't bother to publish.

*It's not that they can't publish. One of the four, Dr. Edward Buckley seems to be responsible for all of the technical material that I could find. According to LBO, Buckley "holds a Masters degree in electrical and electronic engineering from University College London and a PhD from the University of Cambridge". Is it significant that they say what his masters is in but not his PhD? If he had a PhD in EE from Cambridge wouldn't he be more clear about that? And if he does, why is he VP of business development rather than having a technical position? Why is the VP of business development writing all of the technical documents put out by the company?

* Their CTO is Adrian Cable who "has a degree in electronic engineering from Cambridge University and his PhD focused on holographic optics, projection technology, and simulation and modelling of complex optical systems". Again, I note slippery language about the degrees it seems to imply that he has a Ph.D. from Cambridge but doesn't say so. All it says is that he has a degree in EE from Cambridge and he has a Ph.D. They could be two different degrees. I found two patent applications for Cable, only one of which applies to LBO. And that patent is just for the idea of a 2D holographic projection system --there is no clue how they solve the fundamental problem of calculating the interference pattern needed for the projection. I didn't find a patent for that, or any description of the algorithm anywhere.

So, does all of this prove that LBO just scammed 15 million dollars out of foolish investors? No, of course not. But I can say that I hope those investors were able to get a lot more and better information on the company than I was able to get and that they hired an independent optics expert to review the technology. If they didn't, then I think they were being a bit reckless.

UPDATE: even more LBO speculation here
UPDATE: more as of 4/2010.

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