Spokane Journal of Business

McGrew's newest research eyes liquid-crystal glasses

West Plains inventor gets free access to specialized equipment at Seattle lab

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New Light Industries Ltd., a Spokane research and development concern owned by holography pioneer Steve McGrew, is helping to develop new technology aimed at use in what are called virtual reality glasses—and perhaps in what would be a revolutionary approach to bifocals and trifocals.

The 19-year-old company, located at 9715 W. Sunset Highway, recently was awarded three months of free access to highly specialized lab equipment at the Washington Technology Center's Microfabrication Laboratory in Seattle. There, New Light Industries will use the lab's $2.5 million electron beam lithography system to speed up research on the new technology greatly.

McGrew, who holds a host of patents and is known as the first to come up with a commercially practical way to produce embossed holograms—such as on credit cards—says he can't discuss in detail how the new technology works. The WTC describes it only as "a revolutionary liquid crystal alignment technology based upon a previously unexploited class of geometry-based interactions between liquid crystals and solid surfaces."

Liquid-crystal technology has been around for a century and now is used commonly in everything from televisions and computer monitors to watches and smart phones. McGrew is working with other scientists on a way to use liquid crystals in a new way, in what generally are called head-mounted displays.

"Our primary target is to see them in use in enhanced reality glasses," McGrew says. "They'd look like sunglasses, but when you look through them, you could watch movies, see 3-D images. It's like the old sci-fi movies only this is real."

Enhanced reality glasses add content that you can't see with the naked eye to what you can see, whereas virtual reality glasses provide entirely different content than what you normally would see. Both are markets McGrew hopes to tap.

Uses of the technology, he says, would be very broad. "To me, the ultimate value is to make the screens on pocket computers obsolete," McGrew says.

Another, completely different use for the technology would be in what he calls "electronically focusable eyeglasses," in which McGrew's liquid-crystal technology could be used to make all parts of an eyeglasses lens capable of providing the proper focus that bifocals and trifocals do in only part of the lens. He declines to elaborate too much on that technology except to say that it has to do with how liquid crystals are aligned and how light is refracted through them.

McGrew says he is working with Vuzix Corp., a Rochester, N.Y.-based maker of head-mounted displays, to commercialize the technology. He says he also has been collaborating with researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on other parts of the technology. Vuzix already has begun licensing some of McGrew's intellectual property.

That company makes products that range from glasses on which you can watch video, called iWear, to similar devices aimed at medical and defense markets, its Web site says.

McGrew says he has been researching new uses of liquid crystals for several years and has been working with Hoi S. Kwok and Vladimir Chigrinov, both of the Hong Kong university, for about two years. He describes the professors as leading experts in liquid crystals. McGrew believes it will take another year to determine if his liquid-crystal technology can be manufactured viably, and another year after that to get it into production if it can.

He says New Light Industries expects to begin using the WTC lab in Seattle next month, and, although the award from that institution was for free use of the lab for just three months, he expects to use it for about two years, the remaining time on a paying basis. A New Light Industries technician moved to Seattle recently and is being trained to use the equipment there. She will remain there throughout that research phase, McGrew says.

He says the equipment there isn't required for the research New Light Industries needs to do, but is "really, really helpful," adding that he has equipment in Spokane to do the work, but "100 times slower."

New Light Industries, which employs six people, is a research company that often has won federal grants to study specific technologies, primarily in hologram technology and document security. It also licenses its technologies to others, and has manufactured holographic printers.

McGrew, a Cheney native, moved back to the West Plains in 1991, after working for and owning companies that produced embossed holograms.

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