A team of engineers has built a camera about the size of a salt grain that’s capable of taking images of similar quality to an ordinary camera 500,000 times its size. The super-small camera takes advantage of a combination of flat optic technology and artificial intelligence to produce its images.
While the camera isn’t great for any point-and-shoot escapades, the tiny tech could be useful in fields like in medical imaging. There are also applications in other areas, as evidenced by some of the project’s funders: Amazon, Facebook, Google, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The new camera produces significantly better images than cameras of the same kind just a few years ago. The team that developed this “metasurface camera” has published their findings this week in Nature Communications.
“While sensors have been miniaturized over the last decades, the lenses of point-and-shoot are bulky—largely defining the size of the entire camera,” said Felix Heide, a computer scientist at Princeton University and a co-author of the study, in an email to Gizmodo. “To build a drastically smaller camera, we had to devise a new type of lens system that does not use conventional glass optics but an array of nano-sized antennas. Instead of grinding glass or injection-molding glass, these new optics can be fabricated at an ultra-small scale in a similar fashion to computer chips.”
Metasurface optics work slightly differently to compound optics (the type at work in your phone or in a standard telescope). While compound optics rely on a series of lenses to cast light on a sensor, metasurface optics use nano-scale antennae (in this case, 1.6 million of them) to direct wavelengths of light onto a sensor. The recent team combined nano-optics with processing algorithms, creating so-called “neural nano-optics.”
“It’s been a challenge to design and configure these little nano-structures to do what you want,” said study lead author Ethan Tseng, a computer scientist at Princeton University, in a university release. “For this specific task of capturing large field of view RGB images, it was previously unclear how to co-design the millions of nano-structures together with post-processing algorithms.”
Neural nano-optics allow the minuscule camera to fill in the blanks of the image, reducing noise and thus producing a higher-quality photo of its subject. The new camera can take images of similar quality to a compound optical camera 500,000 times larger.
When viewed side-by-side with images taken by the previous generation of metasurface nano-optical cameras, it’s clear how much better the new photos are. Images taken by previous state-of-the-art metasurface cameras didn’t exactly resemble the objects they were capturing, as they were blurry and showed distorted colors. The saturation and softness of the new images evoke the feeling of a dream, all captured with a camera that you could lose in a teaspoon.
Heide said in the university release that the cameras could end up on phones, replacing the compound lens cameras that we currently carry in our pockets.
“The technology could be applied to almost all cameras we use, from medical use-cases in endoscopy, to cameras in self-driving cars, or our smartphone cellphones we take around with us every day,” Heide told Gizmodo, and added in the news release that “We could turn individual surfaces into cameras that have ultra-high resolution, so you wouldn’t need three cameras on the back of your phone anymore, but the whole back of your phone would become one giant camera. We can think of completely different ways to build devices in the future.”
Of course, I can think of a few less-dreamy uses for this tech, and I’m sure the Defense Department, which partially funded the research, can too.
This article has been updated to include comments from Felix Heide.