I’ve attended many trade shows and conferences in my career, and Photonics West 2024 stands out as heralding not only glitzy new technologies, but also a fundamental technological paradigm shift. And that impression has as much to do with the people and the community vibe as with the advances in research, technology, and commercialization efforts showcased at the event.
Since one person couldn’t possibly pick up all the trends percolating in the photonics sphere at a show that co-located conferences and exhibitions of several arenas, I focused on talking with as many people and visiting as many booths as I could to get a sense of how individuals’ and companies’ messages jibe with published market trends. A few observations stand out to me, a first-time attendee.
The first, most immediate, impression was the optimism and resolve in the sessions and the comments of people I talked with. While technically not a business or technology trend, the sheer belief in our community’s collective ability to catalyze a new technological era is as critical to future success as anything. It matters that the optimism and resolve is palpable.
As one example, I lost track of the number of times I heard someone declare the upcoming decade as the Photonics Age or even the Golden Age of Photonics, with each claim following reports featuring stellar market growth numbers or a description of a technology’s path to commercialization.
Another set of examples comes from the executives I spoke with. Speaking about his company’s efforts in developing portable and miniaturized solutions for quantum technology applications, Aquark Technologies CEO Andrei Dragomir, Ph.D., summed up the vibe, “I think to some extent you need to will it into existence. You need to be that optimistic because it’s definitely not an easy challenge,” he said. “You need to ignore the hardships ahead of you so you can focus on what you can actually deliver.”
Similarly, several executives highlighted the similarities between earlier periods of technological innovation and where photonics is today. The message? Photonics technologies are on the cusp of similarly transforming our world.
Finally, given the size and vibrancy of the show—over 1500 exhibitors, nearly 100 distinct technical conferences, over 5000 presentations, and more than 24,000 registered attendees, according to SPIE—it seems clear this community sees a tipping point soon, or at least a bright future.
Another trend, perhaps not so obvious to those focused on the latest research advances and dazzling technology, is the increasing urgency to collaborate. Regardless of the technology-focused arena, the word “collaboration” featured in my many conversations with researchers and business leaders and sessions I attended. True, collaboration, as well as competition, between labs and companies in various combinations is ever-present. However, the necessity of deepening and extending collaboration came up repeatedly.
“I think now, it’s all about collaboration,” Andrei told me. “There needs to be a level of competition because otherwise, we don’t challenge ourselves. But the main theme here is to find a way to collaborate, because we’re all, at least for now, batting for the same team.”
Another common refrain, referring to the ecosystems, not industries, further emphasized the overlapping interdependencies between and across the various technologies and, therefore, the need to collaborate.
Finally, the talk of next-generation commercialization of various advanced and breakthrough technologies permeated the show—both by design and at the booths. A new Quantum West Business Summit convened this year demonstrates the readiness of researchers and businesses to collectively identify and clear obstacles to commercializing quantum technology, resolving high-volume manufacturing and supply chain issues, and identifying early use cases beyond the lab.
Likewise, other sessions explored the push for and what it will take to commercialize various other emerging technologies, including micro-optics and microLEDs.
No matter what arena you spent the most time in, I'm sure you are sorting through the takeaways—the new research, technologies, and commercialization efforts. But don't forget the people and the communities they build. It's the people—you among them—who will ultimately make photonics the defining feature of our generation.