ID Interviews Seth Coe-Sullivan, Vice President and Chief Technical Officer for Luminit
Seth Coe-Sullivan is well known as a co-founder of the quantum dot company QD Vision. He holds numerous patents relating to quantum dots (QDs) and organic light-emitting devices (OLEDs). Coe-Sullivan’s role at Luminit, a maker of light diffuser films and holographic components, includes intellectual property strategy, technical marketing, and business development.
Conducted by Jenny Donelan
ID: For our readers who don’t know a lot about Luminit, can you explain what the company does?
The products and technology that Luminit has had for the last 10 years – or actually 15, since the technology was conceived at our parent company [Luminit was spun off from Physical Optics Corporation in 2006] – are based on holographic diffuser technology. We use a holographic process to create a master that allows us to make roll-to-roll, surface-relief diffusers with very high precision and control.
Our single largest market is the lighting industry, but we also serve the display and various other high-tech industries that have a need for our diffusers. We’ve had a profitable small business for the last decade, and part of our strength is that there are just so many different applications for this technology. Today, our largest single market is LED lighting. Beyond that, our market is what we call high tech, which is sort of a catch-all for various medical imaging devices, barcode scanners, fingerprint scanners – anywhere that controlled lighting is an important part of the product function.
ID: Can you describe the holographic process used to create the films?
SCS: We use a laser-based interference process to create the primary structure. The master that holds all the information is created in a holography lab. Once we’ve got that master, which is like a big rolling pin, we use a physical, mechanical process to transfer that pattern into the film that we sell.
The use of this product has nothing to do with holography. The diffuser can accept monochrome laser light, but also white or colored LED light. And it diffuses that light in a controlled way, which in this context means we can determine how exactly the light spreads out onto a sheet. It can be spread in a narrow cone, a very broad cone, a circular cone, an elliptical cone, and so forth.
ID: In addition, Luminit is now making something new, an actual holographic product. Can you tell us about that?
SCS: We’ve introduced what we’re calling a transparent holographic component. It works with various products such as augmented-reality (AR) glasses, smart glasses, vehicular displays, near-to-eye displays, and vehicular head-up displays. The component doesn’t form the image – it relies on another display device to do that, so there’ll be a projector or a microdisplay of some sort in the system. The system renders the image holographically. So you look through this transparent piece of glass, and you see all the information on the display without having to look at the display. It’s an optical element, and can function as if it were a lens, a grating, or a mirror. But it’s diffractive, which allows the element to be selective, only having the desired effect on a limited range of colors and angles. All the other light can pass through unaffected by our component.
The fact that these holograms are transparent is absolutely critical in all the markets I just mentioned. You can’t put anything on a windshield that isn’t transparent. You can’t wear eyeglasses that aren’t transparent.
ID: So you’re looking through the transparent component, but the image will appear to you
as if it is in thin air.
ID: Where did this concept come from?
SCS: The idea actually goes back a couple of decades. It was the same with quantum dots. People talked about using them for displays well before I started working with them. What we did then, and what we’re doing now, is to reduce the technology to something practical that fits within the display ecosystem – such as the display optical system – and serves a current need.
ID: Speaking of quantum dots, you were involved with them for years. How does that experience relate to what you’re doing now?
SCS: It’s fair to say that I was known as the quantum dot guy. So I wanted to prove to myself that I could be more than just a quantum dot guy. What brought me to Luminit was this combination of another really hard technology – quantum dots and holography are both optical technologies and they’re both sort of the stuff of science fiction, as well as the stuff of hard science. The challenge is trying to make them into an easy-to-buy, easy-to-use commercial, consumer technology.
When I got involved with quantum dots – which was the subject of my Ph.D. thesis at MIT, spun out into the company QD Vision – they were sort of a lab curiosity, and now you can buy eight different brands, and they are used for monitors, and for TVs at Best Buy. I’m not quite sure quantum dot is a household name yet, but still – what I am excited about here at Luminit is the chance to do the same. It’s another cycle of taking something complicated in a lab and turning it into an impactful
product instead of just a cool technology.
ID: In a related question, how does your experience in a start-up like QD Vision compare with where you are at now?
SCS: Well, the diffuser technology we discussed earlier is well established and well known, and has been sold into the industry for a decade. But what I’m doing at Luminit is going back to the company’s roots in holography, and instead of just applying that technology to diffusers, we’re applying it to the main display function. What’s exciting is they’re clearly experts in holography; Luminit has a large list of people who have Ph.D.s in holography.
ID: So where is this technology today in terms of development?
SCS: We’re working with consumer electronics companies, pulling together whole systems with our components. These systems were shown at CES, and even before that, but Luminit’s role has been anonymous.I can’t list a specific customer for you yet, but if you were able to walk around CES,
you would see prototypes with our stuff in it. [At press time, however, Luminit had just won a Display Component of the Year Award for its Transparent Holographic Component, as used in a commercial prototype, a HUD for a motorcycle helmet from a developer called Reyedr.]
Right now we’re scaling up production – Luminit has created a whole new facility for production of these Transparent Holographic Components, and we’re in the process of receiving all the equipment needed to mass-produce these. Today we’re able to produce them in quantities of tens and hundreds per month, and very quickly we should be able to produce them in quantities of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, a month. This capacity will be in place by mid-year, and we should be shipping to our customers in 2017.
What we’re finding is a need for head-up displays for the avionic and automotive markets, and transparent displays for augmented reality. These are relatively new topics. People have talked about them for a long time, but taking them seriously as a small electronics class that could have a big impact on the market in a few years is a relatively new discussion. I think a decade ago, it wasn’t clear that the world was ready or that the ecosystem existed for augmented reality to be useful to consumers. But everybody’s excited about it now. All of the various components – software, user interface, operating system – can be worked on in parallel, and we think that a transparent optical element is absolutely critical to the success of this industry.
ID: From a personal standpoint, what has it been like to change companies and work with a completely new technology, even if there are commonalities in terms of optics? Has that been a challenge for you?
SCS: For me it’s just been fun and exciting. I’m happiest when I’m learning. Making it up that learning curve to understanding a new market, and understanding a new technology, is what keeps me engaged. •
Jenny Donelan is the editor in chief of Information Display Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.