A Tribute To The Laser, 50 Years On

All Tech Considered marks 2010 with a tribute — from musician and writer David Was — to the laser, which turns 50 years old this year. Was checks out new laser gadgets at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now, a tribute to a technology that is not new. It's old enough to become the butt of movie jokes - from the likes of "Austin Powers," spoofing James Bond movies. It's the laser.

(Soundbite of movie, "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery")

Mr. MIKE MYERS (as Dr. Evil): Are those sharks with laser beams attached to their heads?

(Soundbite of laser)

BLOCK: Musician and writer David Was went in search of some tech geeks who might be celebrating a big birthday for the laser.

Mr. DAVID WAS (Musician; Writer): Having just returned from the digital bacchanal known as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I was surprised how few of the participants knew that the once mighty laser turns 50 this year.

(Soundbite of laser)

Mr. WAS: Forgotten amid the din of tiny gadgets that go beep in the night, the laser beam can rightly lay claim to being the Rodney Dangerfield of high tech.

Mr. RODNEY DANGERFIELD (Comedian; Actor): I tell yeah, I don't get no respect. No respect at all.

Mr. WAS: But even if the laser's golden anniversary was being denied the respect it deserved, it wasn't hard to find lasers slaving away on the convention center floor.

(Soundbite of convention center floor)

Mr. WAS: Most moderns are aware that it takes a laser beam to read a bar code, that CDs and DVDs are worthless silver Frisbees without lasers to decode the embedded bits and bytes. The laser also plays a role in delivering crisp images from small video display devices, like the many palm-sized projectors that debuted at CES this year.

Mr. BEN AVERCH (Global Product Manager, Microvision): I love lasers personally.

Mr. WAS: Ben Averch, the global product manager from Microvision, was unstinting in his affection for the beam and its role in his product, the show WX laser pico-projector.

Mr. AVERCH: Due to the quality of the laser light, we get about 240 percent of the available colors that you can see as opposed to an LED-based system.

Mr. WAS: Even the Swiss Army Knife, which has had a corner on analog multitasking for over a century, now has a weapon more suited to the board room than the wilderness. It has a 16 gigabyte USB flash drive that won't do you any good when a mountain lion attacks, but the red laser pointer might be used in a pinch to distract the critter, a parlor trick well known to cat fanciers everywhere. Swiss Army Knife's Dan Carpenter was properly laser-reverent.

Mr. DAN CARPENTER (Swiss Army Knife): We're thrilled to have it as a part of our product and we hope for many more years of the lovely laser to come.

Mr. WAS: Finally, I sought out one of the little-guy firms, toiling in the shadows of the 10,000 square foot corporate behemoths. The Tokyo based Ariel 3D display project is responsible for those hovering logos you might see dangling in midair at a trade show like CES. I asked the company's rather earnest spokesman how many lasers it would take to project a digital effigy of a troubled female pop star.

Mr. TONY MERCEDEZ (Spokesman, Microvision): Britney Spears. Well, if you have enough laser machines and then enough all scanners, then we can create.

Mr. WAS: Tony Mercedez's literal answer to a facetious query was well worth the price of admission. At 50 years old, the humble laser is alive and kicking, removing tattoos, shooting down missiles, or projecting blimp sized Britneys into the stratosphere. Happy golden anniversary.

BLOCK: That's writer and musician David Was for our weekly segment, All Tech Considered. This is NPR News.

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