Scientists at Intel said they have developed silicon chips that can switch light like electricity, blurring the line between computing and communications. The breakthrough, they say, will allow affordable computers to span the entire globe, erasing physical distance in electronic communications.
Intel plans on demonstrating a working system transmitting a movie in high-definition television over a five-mile coil of fiber-optic cable next week at its annual Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.
The development suggests that Intel, as the world’s largest chipmaker, may be able to develop the technology to move into new telecommunications markets.
It will free computer designers to think about the systems they create in new ways, the New York Times reported, making it possible to conceive of machines that are not located in a single physical place. It will also make possible a new class of computing applications based on the possibility of transmitting high-definition video and still images hundreds or even thousands of times faster than possible on today’s Internet.
“Before, there were two worlds — computing and communications,” said Alan Huang, a former Bell Labs physicist, who has founded the Terabit Corporation, an optical networking company in Menlo Park, Calif. “Now they will be the same and we will have powerful computers everywhere.”
One potential application, he told the Times, would be an interactive digital television system allowing viewers to watch a sporting event from multiple angles, moving the point of view at will while the game is being played. With only a limited number of digital cameras, it might be possible to synthesize a virtual moveable seat any place in the stadium. Such a feature exists currently in video games, but it is far beyond the capacity of today’s digital television transmission systems.
Intel said the technical advance, in which the researchers use a component made from pure silicon to send data at speeds as much as 50 times faster than the previous switching record, is the first step toward building low-cost networks that will move data seamlessly between computers and within large computer systems.
The device Intel has built is the prototype of a high-speed silicon optical modulator that the company has now pushed above two billion bits per second at a lab near its headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. The modulator makes it possible to switch off and on a tiny laser beam and direct it into an ultra-thin glass fiber.
With this breakthrough, Intel researchers said, they have shown that it should be possible to build optical fiber communications systems using Intel’s conventional chip-making process without resorting to either the exotic materials or hand-assembly techniques that are now the standard in the fiber-optic networking industry.