Prof. Zeev Zalevsky: Seeing the World in a Whole New Way

Prof. Zeev Zalevsky, 43, is the Head of the Electro-Optics track at the Faculty of Engineering and director of the Nano Photonics Center at the Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA). 

An internationally acclaimed expert in his field, he is a visiting professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, and on the management board of OASIS, The Optical Association of Israel. Zalevsky is the recipient of numerous awards, among which are the International Commission for Optics (ICO) Prize, the Krill Award, the Fund Juludan Prize for advancing technology in medicine.  In 2011 his optical heartbeat monitor was selected as one of Israel's top 45 greatest inventions of all time.  

Born in Russia in 1971, Zalevsky immigrated to Israel with his family at a young age, and obtained a BSc in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Optoelectronics, both from Tel Aviv University. He joined the faculty of Engineering at BIU a decade ago as a senior lecturer and researcher, after founding several successful startups in Israel.  Five years ago he helped establish the Bar-Ilan Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA), where he now serves as Director of the Nano-Photonics Center. 

Lighting the way

One of Israel’s most prolific inventors, with more than 50 patents registered in his name, Prof. Zalevsky’s applicable research focuses on the creation of ultra-small applications that harness the power of light for high-speed information processing, medicine and super resolved imaging. He developed theoretical and experimental definitions of various approaches for exceeding Abbe's classical limit of optical resolution, and has broadened the field of Fractional Fourier transform (FRFT), having published five books on those subjects.

In 2011 Prof. Zalevsky was awarded the Taubenblatt Prize for Excellence in Medical Research for his research on Multi-Functional Bio-Medical Micro Probe, and the applicable technology he consequently developed - an optical-fiber-based “nano-probe” for use in neuroscience research.  This device transmits light and electrical signals that may be collected e.g. from activity centers in the brain, allowing for the exact characterization of neurological structures involved in vision. 

Another technology developed at the lab of Zalevsky is related to a new concept allowing blind people to “see” through tactile stimulation of their cornea. This impressive new technological development, dubbed “the bionic contact lens”. At an official ceremony in Geneva marking Israel's admission as a full member of CERN, the prestigious European organization for nuclear research, Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, cited this discovery as one of Israel's most noteworthy developments.

According to Zalevsky, a camera mounted on top of spectacles processes digital images and translates them into tactile sensations. These sensations can be felt on the person's cornea, allowing him or her to form a picture of their physical surroundings. The cornea stimulation is done using the special contact lens. This research activity is done in collaboration with Prof. Michael Belkin from Tel-ha-shomer and with Dr. Yevgeny Beiderman that is working in the group of Zalevsky.

"It's like reading Braille, not with your fingertips but with your eyes," said Zalevsky. “We can encode an image with many more points than the Braille system and use these to stimulate the surface of the cornea.”

He explains that the system uses a mounted camera or smartphone to capture images that are turned into a form of electronic Braille. Zalevsky said that with a short training the user can use the lens effectively. “This technology is good news for humanity, especially in bringing sight to people blind from birth without requiring surgery or damaging other vital senses or organs,” says Zalevsky.

Outdo, outsmart, outshine

Zalevsky, married and a father of four, is an avid swimmer and jogger, who likes to participate in various sport events such as Tel-Aviv marathon, and enjoys travelling and discovering new exciting ways of touring the country (and the world). With his family, he hikes on mountains, jumps down waterfalls, and crawls through tunnels and caves. "It's all about challenging yourself and exploring the world", he says. "I make it a point to always try and better myself, set goals and exceed my own achievements."

On a professional level, his achievements include developing technologies relating to vision, biomedical sensors and optical solutions. Zalevsky's research interests include nanophotonics, specifically, developing Nano photonic device that are able to process information optically without having to convert it to electric data. Currently, in order to process electronic signals, they need to be converted and the different units on an electronic chip need to be physically connected by wires in order to work.  Zalevsky is attempting to render all the wiring redundant by replacing it with optical wireless signals.

Zalevsky's sound-seeing optics have already caught the attention of the Nano community – his achievement was reported in November 2010 at the NanoIsrael conference in Tel Aviv. And for good reason.  In addition to the obvious applications for security – with a visual system, you don’t have to plant microphones around the room, all you need is a line of sight with your target – Zalevsky’s device can “see” your blood pulse and pressure, glucose level and even the shape and beat of your heart. After all, everything is vibrating (one’s glucose level, for example, affects the viscosity of the blood stream which in turn changes the way the arteries vibrate).

What’s the big deal, though, when it comes to monitoring your bodily functions? Don’t we already have sufficient technology? Zalevsky gives an example from a hospital operating room. “You get a spaghetti effect of wires,” he explains. “Patients have too many machines connected to them, which makes it much more difficult to move them around during the operation or to read the relevant information on time.”

The technology can even help people with hearing problems, Zalevsky adds. With typical hearing aids, both the voices and background noise are amplified and often the brain can’t filter out the good from the bad. “With our device,” Zalevsky says, “we look at individual spatial pixels, so we can isolate a specific voice” from the overall morass. The solution would involve adding a tiny laser on the hearing aid, which is focused on the person who one is trying to hear.

The cost saving can be significant too: Zalevsky estimates a camera and a laser might cost just a few dollars for short distances and only several hundred dollars for intermediate lengths.

Eric Miller, Associate Dean of Research at the Tufts School of Engineering, finds the approach compelling. "Zalevsky seems to have developed a system for doing optical speckle interferometry that is practical and robust, overcoming a number of important challenges, which they’ve demonstrated in practice," he told Fast Company.

The exciting part is that the fundamental technique can be used to create an entire range of devices. Remotely monitoring every patient in a hospital room or keeping tabs on a person’s vital signs in the operating theater would be child’s play. It would be possible to produce "optical cardiograms" by measuring a person’s heartbeats from a distance. A handheld version that monitors vital signs from a distance could come eerily close to the very popular medical "tricorder" in Star Trek. The future is already here! 

For more on Prof. Zelevsky click here.