It felt a little weird walking into San Francisco’s Moscone Center for the start of Photonics West 2022. It had been two years since I walked out of Moscone after covering Photonics West 2020…and then the world shut down.

There were warning signs of what was to come at the 2020 show — a few empty booths with signs explaining the companies couldn’t be there due to COVID travel restrictions — but for the most part nobody on the show floor seemed too concerned about a virus in China.

What do you do with unused booth space when companies change plans due to COVID? Chess anyone? (Photo: Bennett)
Kazu, the robot assembled from OptoSigma components, that’s the star of their creative new marketing campaign called “Project Avatar.” (Photo: Bennett)
Volume 1 of the new comic book created by OptoSigma as part of their new marketing campaign, designed to impact a younger audience. (Photo: Bennett)

Fast forward two years and Photonics West is back at Moscone after going virtual last year. I was excited about the prospect — frankly, virtual trade shows don’t work for me. But as the date drew closer, storm clouds began forming. A sudden surge in the Omicron variant caused a number of exhibitors — some of them major players — to pull out, giving me second thoughts. Did I really want to do this?

Bottom line — I’m a journalist and that’s where the story was, so I boarded a plane and flew to San Francisco. Attendance was definitely down this year; no massive crowds of people rushing onto the exhibition floor the moment the show opened. Masks were mandatory, as was proof of vaccination, and for the most part everyone tried to observe COVID protocols, which made life challenging at times. Holding technical discussions while wearing face masks can be, shall we say, difficult.

There was plenty to see on the show floor despite some companies acknowledging that they had to postpone plans to introduce new products due to supply chain issues. The technology is ready to go, they said, but creating demand for products they can’t immediately deliver would not be in anyone’s best interests.

One of the most interesting displays on the show floor this year was not a product or technology but an outside-the-box marketing concept being launched by OptoSigma. In addition to giving away $20,000 worth of optical components to engineers who visited their booth, they’ve created a comic book series called “Project Avatar” that tells the whimsical story of Kazu, a robot with superior intelligence created by a high-energy gamma burst that gets emitted by an exploding star, bounces off the Hubble telescope (I did mention the “whimsical” part, right?) and crashes into OptoSigma’s headquarters. Besides the comic book, the campaign includes collectible pins that were very popular with attendees, and a scale model of Kazu made entirely of OptoSigma components of course.

According to OptoSigma’s president and CEO, Scott Rudder, the campaign took a year to put together and is designed to attract the attention of not only OptoSigma’s current target market, but also students who will make up the next generation of engineers…and OptoSigma’s future customers.

Whether it will work or not remains to be seen. But these days, amidst all of the gloom and doom permeating the business world, it was kind of refreshing to find a serious company that still knows how to have fun.