A Microscopic Lens-Free Image Sensor Could Turn Anything Into a Camera

This tiny piece of glass may not look like much, but in fact its surface is cleverly etched to capture light, and it contains a small chip to process the incident light. Yep, it's a tiny camera that could provide any object—however small—with the means of capturing images.

The idea behind the new sensor, developed by Rambus, is simple: shrinking a real lens only works up to a certain point; when it gets too small, grinding the precise curvature of a lens becomes practically impossible. Instead, this sensor detects light passing through an etched surface and then uses some computing to reconstruct an image.

The action takes place on a spiral-etched grating on the surface of the glass, which measures just 200 microns in diameter—about the same size as a pencil point. The results aren't perfect, but they're great given how small the sensor is. Technology Review's Rachel Metz explains:

Patrick Gill [from Rambus] is excited to show me a small, fuzzy-looking picture of the Mona Lisa, printed in black and white on a piece of paper. It's not much to look at, literally, but it's unmistakably her, with long dark hair and that mysterious smile.

So, a little fuzzy, maybe, but good enough for some applications—and it's the applications that are exciting. "Our aim is to add eyes to any digital device, no matter how small," Gill explained to Technology Review. Imagine, basically, adding a camera to any old object—medical devices, toys, clothes, whatever—without any extra bulk or weight.

Anything and everything around you could be capable of capturing images. That could be a little worrying in privacy terms—but it's also a massive step forward for the connected world. [Rambus via Technology Review]