Philips: Patent dispute looms over fluid lens

Koninklijke Philips Electronics could find itself in court defending a patent for fluid focus lens technology demonstrated here at the Cebit exhibition in Hanover, Germany.

"Officials at Varioptic claim we are infringing on their system," said Koen Joosse, a spokesman for Philips' research division. "The two systems are similar in some ways but different in others. We claim to have a unique solution, which we have already patented."

Hoping to capitalize on the trend toward integration of miniature medical and mobile devices with high-end digital cameras, Philips is showing visitors at Cebit a variable-focus lens system capable of focusing on objects and creating sharp pictures in ways similar to the human eye. The prototype fluid lens measures 3 millimeters in diameter by 2.2 millimeters in length. It consumes virtually zero power.

The lens doesn't require mechanical moving parts -- which are still used even in high-end digital cameras -- but works instead by manipulating two fluids (oil and water) in a tiny transparent tube with a small electric current. When the sides of the tube are charged with the electric current, one of the two fluids is drawn to the edges while the other fills up the remaining space in the tube. The place where the two fluids meet functions like a lens. By changing the current, the fluid lens can be shaped hollow, curvex or anything in between, allowing it to focus on objects that are far away or within centimeters.

That, claims Varioptic, is how it technology works, too.

The Lyon, France startup intends to enforce its patents on electrowetting technology for variable-focus lens, a company spokeswoman said. "We will do whatever is necessary to protect our patents," said Chief Executive Officer Etienne Paillard. "From what we've seen of Philips' fluid lens demonstration, it's our technology."

Varioptic's technology is the result of more than 10 years of research by the company's founder, Bruno Berge, a former research scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research. Berge filed two patents for his electrowetting technology in 1997 and 1999, according to Paillard.

Philips' variable-focus lens isn't based on electrowetting technology, according to Joosse. "We have a patent on our system, which is unique," he said. "We will defend it in court if we need to."

While acknowledging that Philips respects intellectual property rights, Joosse said the company will fight to protect its inventions, adding that disputes over patents are "part of the game."

Between one and two years of development are still necessary before the fluid lens could go into production at Philips, he said.

At Cebit, Varioptic and Samsung Electro-Mechanics Co. agreed to jointly develop advanced liquid lenses based on Varioptic's patented technology. The South Korean manufacturer demonstrated an auto-focus camera module using the French company's electrowetting system.

The Cebit trade show ends Wednesday.

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