Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 16/03/2004Now, this is more like it. Philips has announced a fluid lens technology that means you can make a tiny device out of two different liquids in a chamber, and by zapping it with the right volts -- electrowetting, which is what I thought girls used to do at Gary Numan concerts -- it'll change focus.

Tuesday 16/03/2004
Now, this is more like it. Philips has announced a fluid lens technology that means you can make a tiny device out of two different liquids in a chamber, and by zapping it with the right volts -- electrowetting, which is what I thought girls used to do at Gary Numan concerts -- it'll change focus. Liquid optics are nothing new -- people have made telescope mirrors from mercury spun into a parabolic shape, and there are some very clever and cheap one-size-fits-all eyeglasses where you set the right lens shape for you by merely pumping the right amount of water into plastic bags in front of your peepers. But the Philips idea will work with digital cameras, potentially replacing quite a lot of expensive mechanical gubbins. This is the first time such a notion has hit the mass consumer market.

Or is it? Vague memories coalesce -- a French company called Varioptic had something similar. In fact, looking at the Web site, something astonishingly similar.

So similar is it, in fact, that m'learned friends have been retained -- and are even now, one assumes, frantically looking up 'electrowetting' in Larousse.

We'll have to wait for a court to decide, but from a quick reading of the patents involved it looks as if the Philips device is near-identical to the Varioptic invention -- which precedes the Dutch version by some time. It is impossible for Philips not to have known about the antecedent: the company's brusque retort to Varioptic's request for licence fees indicates that some bother is expected. It's also odd that such similar patents were granted.

Philips must have wargamed the forthcoming lawsuit and be sure that it can win either through dint of being right or the customary principle that my lawyers are bigger than your lawyers. Let's hope it's not the latter.

The history of technology is spattered with this sort of game, from the early days of wireless and television to our own uniquely convoluted gameshow of SCO versus The World. At least in this case it's over a good old-fashioned invention.