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New Tech Promises Smartphones That Can Actually Rival Professional Cameras

Scientists have unveiled a new technology based on hybrid meta-optics that can take high-grade photos with none of the bulk of conventional cameras.

Most modern cameras, especially those intended for professional use, leverage multiple interchangeable lenses that help the photographer obtain the best image for any particular scenario, albeit at the cost of compactness and portability.

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Scientists have been researching flat optics made of meta-structures to achieve high-grade image quality while not compromising on portability.

Meta-structures are novel materials with repeating patterns in their structures designed to manipulate other structures by designing these patterns to be smaller than that of the characteristic material being manipulated. The invisibility cloak is one of its popular applications.

Modern smartphones and other smart-devices instead rely on computational imaging— using software to mask the shortcomings of their compact optical setup— to produce high-quality images and video.

The team’s findings, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Science Advances, explore combining optics made from metamaterials and software.

Translating theoretical delights to the real world

While these meta-optics theoretically have a high ceiling, the difficulty researchers face while modeling the complex interactions between light and all the optical components often results in a design that delivers mediocre image quality by conventional standards.

The team addressed this drawback by employing a “hardware in the loop” strategy by experimenting with actual lenses and sensors instead of a software model, a move that the team attributes to have helped reduce the processing and memory demands.

In the experiments, the researchers utilized a combination of hybrid meta-optics and computational imaging techniques to capture photographs of objects located at distances ranging from 0.5 to 1.8 meters. 

New tech promises smartphones that can actually rival professional cameras
Configuration for lens-only and designed hybrid systems.Science Advances/ Pinilla et al. 

The hybrid meta-optics employed in their setup included a standard refractive lens measuring a thickness of 4.5 millimeters, coated with a quartz meta-optic film 500 µm thick. Additionally, the surface of the film was adorned with square silicon nitride pillars standing at a height of 700 nanometers.

The team observed these single-lens devices to click full-color pictures rivaling a Sony Alpha 1 III mirrorless camera, the Japanese behemoth’s flagship offering, coupled with a Sony 85 mm f/1.8 lens, while at under 1 percent of the volume of Sony’s system. (SEL85F18/2)

Future Research and Application

“This hardware-in-the-loop methodology is able to produce better optics compared with the state-of-the-art,” said Vladimir Katkovnik, a senior research fellow at Tampere University, Finland, and co-author of the study. 

“I believe the most impactful application at the moment is the design of a new generation of customized cameras for smartphones,” said Samuel Pinilla, lead study author, at the Science and Technology Facilities Council in Harwell, England, while noting the devices’ potential in biomedical applications.

The team suggests developing meta-optics wider than their current 5 mm width could result in even better image quality by collecting more light. 

Perhaps the day when we finally get cameras rivaling DSLRs and top mirrorless cameras fit into our pockets isn’t too far off.