Will Intel and USB make fiber optics mainstream?

Intel's Light Peak technology uses lasers and fiber optics to transfer data to and from PCs and other devices.

Intel’s Light Peak technology uses lasers and fiber optics to transfer data to and from PCs and other devices.

(Credit: Intel)

SAN FRANCISCO–You’ve probably heard about fiber optics for years–some kind of exotic technology used to carry gargantuan quantities of data across continents. But in the not-too-distant future, you might be plugging these tiny glass strands straight into your computer.

That’s if Intel gets its way. At its Intel Developer Forum last week, the chipmaker demonstrated fiber-optic technology called Light Peak for connecting many devices to PCs with fiber optic lines. Intel secured major Light Peak endorsement from Sony and now it’s has begun trying to make it into an industry standard.

But bringing optical technology to the masses will require more than Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner taking the stage to connect a thin white Light Peak cable into the back of a prototype PC. According to sources familiar with the situation, the most likely mechanism to carry Light Peak out of the R&D lab to the edge of your laptop will be the venerable Universal Serial Bus, and Intel has begun pounding the pavement to try to make that happen.

“Now all the pieces are in place,” Rattner said. “We need to get a standard established to turn on the entire ecosystem to Light Peak.”

Even technophobes are familiar with USB. The plug-and-play technology started its journey in PCs and has spread to handsets, consumer electronics devices, digital cameras, and more. And new developments from the group behind the standard, the USB Implementers Forum, could expand adoption more, with a new faster, more power-efficient version and with technology to make it better for charging devices plugged into a computer or power outlet.

The new “SuperSpeed” USB 3.0 has 5 gigabit-per-second data transfer rate, more than 10 times that of the USB 2.0 version that prevails today, and the first USB 3.0 device achieved certification last week. A separate new USB feature increases the amount of power that USB devices can use from 0.5 amps to 0.9 amps while adding another 1.5 amps specifically for charging batteries, making USB for tasks besides just transferring data.

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