Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Washington have developed an ultra-compact camera. And if I tell you "ultra, really ultra" compact, believe me: it is the size of a large grain of salt. The system was developed with a technology called metasurface. 1,6 million cylindrical pins make up the incredible structure of this object, which can be produced in a similar way to a computer chip.
A micro camera like this could make the fortune of all diagnostic and detection programs, because it also overcomes (among other things) the definition and field of view problems of all its "competitors", which were also much larger.
Hand me the camera
The new system can produce sharp, color images, and rival a conventional photographic lens 500.000 times larger, the researchers write in a paper. published yesterday, November 29, in Nature Communications.
A traditional camera uses a series of curved glass or plastic lenses to focus light rays. This new optical system is based instead, as mentioned, on a technology called metasurface. In the space of half a millimeter, this technology is capable of arranging more than one and a half million nanostructures about the size of the HIV virus.
The key to the incredible performance of this object lies in the combination of advanced design with artificial intelligence, which allowed the structure to be designed in such a way as to optimize the interaction of these tiny optical cylinders with light. The result? A system that could enable virtually non-invasive imaging. An entire surface, a fabric, perhaps an artificial eye could literally be covered by these arrays of "optical antennas": everything can become a camera.
Researchers led by Felix Heide they compared the images produced by the new camera with results from previous cameras, including metasurface ones. All suffered from image distortion and limited ability to capture light. Of course, all but one.
“It was a challenge to design and configure these small microstructures,” he says Ethan Tseng, a PhD in computer science who co-led the study. “For this specific task of capturing RGB images with a wide field of view, it was challenging because there are millions of these little microstructures and we needed to design them optimally.”
Why this camera is a breakthrough
While the optical design approach is not new, this is the first system to use surface optical technology flawlessly combined with neural processing. This research managed to create the perfect combination between extremely precise design and equally precise optimization.
Now Heide and his colleagues are working to add further computing capabilities to the camera. In addition to optimizing image quality, they would like to add features for object detection and other modalities useful for medicine and robotics.
In addition to the more "noble" applications, it goes without saying that there would also be many commercial ones. We could avoid placing a camera (but what can I say, sometimes I see even five) behind a smartphone. The entire back of the phone could become a single camera. And who knows what else. We want to talk about video surveillance? Better not, come on.