A team from the University of California has developed the world’s first optical oscilloscope – a device that converts vibrations of light into electrical signals.

The researchers noted that in the past, reading the electric field of light was challenging due to the high speeds at which the light waves vibrate. The most advanced technologies that provide telephone and Internet communications, so far, can register electric fields at frequencies up to gigahertz – in the radio frequency and microwave regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Light waves vibrate at a much higher speed, which allows for a higher density of information to be transmitted.

But light field instruments can only detect the average signal associated with a pulse of light, not the peaks and extended signals of the pulse. Measuring peaks and slopes within a single pulse is very important, since information is mainly transmitted there.

“Typical communications take advantage of light to make connections faster, but we’re still functionally limited by the speed of an oscilloscope,” said Michael Chini, one of the study’s authors. “Our optical oscilloscope can accelerate this speed by about 10,000 times.”

The team developed the device and demonstrated its capabilities to measure the electric fields of individual laser pulses in real time in the laboratory. The team’s next step is to see how far they can push the speed limits of this approach.