Researchers at Princeton University and Washington University have developed an ultra-compact camera. And if I say "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 will be able to make the fortune of all diagnostic and detection programs, because it overcomes (among other things) even 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 the light rays. This new optical system is instead based, as mentioned, on a technology called metasurface. In the space of half a millimeter, this technology is capable of accommodating more than one and a half million nanostructures about the size of the HIV virus.
The key to the incredible rendering of this object is in the combination of advanced design with artificial intelligence, which made it possible to design the structure in order to optimize the interaction of these tiny optical cylinders with light. The result? A system that could allow practically non-invasive imaging. An entire surface, a fabric, perhaps an artificial eye could be literally covered by these arrays of "optical antennas": everything can become a camera.
Researchers led by Felix Heide compared the images produced by the new camera with the results of 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-directed the study. "For this specific task of capturing RGB images with a large field of view, it was challenging because there are millions of these tiny microstructures and we needed to design them optimally."
Why this camera is a breakthrough
Although the approach to optical design is not new, this is the first system that uses surface optical technology flawlessly combined with neural processing. This research has succeeded in creating the perfect combination between an extremely precise design and an equally precise optimization.
Now Heide and his colleagues are working on adding more computational capabilities to the camera. In addition to optimizing image quality, they would like to add functionality for object detection and other useful modalities for medicine and robotics.
In addition to the more "noble" applications, it goes without saying that even the commercial ones would be many. You could avoid placing a camera (but what do I say, I sometimes 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.