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Could Lensless Cameras Be The Future?

Caltech has created an ultra-thin camera that takes photos without a lens.

| Industry News

Could Lensless Cameras Be The Future? : The OPA chip placed on a penny for scale.

The OPA chip placed on a penny for scale. Credit: Caltech/Hajimiri Lab


Caltech University has created a new camera that takes photos without a lens and as a result, its body size is considerably reduced.

The new design replaces traditional optics with, what Caltech is calling an 'ultra-thin optical phased array (OPA chip)' which is basically a collection of light receivers. Each of the receivers can be individually adjusted so there's a time delay (phase shift) on when they can receive light which allows the camera to look in different directions and focus on different things. 

Commenting on the new camera, Ali Hajimiri, Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, and the principal investigator of a paper describing the new camera said: "We've created a single thin layer of integrated silicon photonics that emulates the lens and sensor of a digital camera, reducing the thickness and cost of digital cameras. It can mimic a regular lens, but can switch from a fish-eye to a telephoto lens instantaneously - with just a simple adjustment in the way the array receives light."

The team behind the new technology go into more detail on how it works over on the Caltech website but in a nutshell:  "What the camera does is similar to looking through a thin straw and scanning it across the field of view. We can form an image at an incredibly fast speed by manipulating the light instead of moving a mechanical object." said graduate student Reza Fatemi (MS '16), lead author of the OSA paper.

Currently, the images captured by the camera are a rather low resolution but it's an interesting proof of concept and improves on the team's research from last year where they created a one-dimensional version of the camera that was capable of detecting images in a line.

Eventually, the team at Caltech says the new technology could make the camera designs we are currently familiar with obsolete, removing the need for mirrors, mechanical movement and lenses but first, the team needs to scale the camera up so the receivers have a much higher resolution and sensitivity. We'll keep you up-to-date with how they get on.  

You can learn more about the project in the Caltech paper: "An 8X8 Heterodyne Lens-less OPA Camera." Caltech has also released a video, shown below, all about the new ultra-thin camera concept. 


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