Scientists invented a camera the size of a grain of rice, forming a film comparable to traditional lenses

Recently, researchers from Princeton University and the University of Washington have developed a rice-grain-sized miniature camera that can take high-definition full-color photos and plays an important role in medical and other professional fields. Related papers were published in "Nature Communications" on November 29.

This kind of miniature camera belongs to the field of neuronano optics. Under its unusual appearance, it is an innovative combination of optical surface and computational processing technologies.

▲ Picture from: Princeton

The first is the optical surface. Traditional cameras use curved glass or plastic lenses, while the new miniature camera optical system relies on "metasurface" imaging technology, which can be produced like a computer chip.

The miniature camera is only half a millimeter wide on the supersurface, with 1.6 million cylinders inlaid, and their size is about the same as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Each cylinder has a unique geometric shape, and its function is similar to an "optical band electromagnetic antenna." Changing the design of each cylinder will affect the correct shaping of the entire optical wavefront.

▲ Picture from: Princeton

The second is the computational imaging method. In order to capture a large field of view RGB image, the size, shape and position of millions of cylinders need to be designed and configured together with the algorithm. Shane Colburn, one of the authors of the paper, created a computational simulator to automatically test different designs and configurations. He developed a model with sufficient accuracy to approximate the image generation capability of a metasurface to achieve the required imaging performance.

The advantage of this miniature camera is that it can create clear full-color images, and it is the highest quality and widest field of view among the full-color hypersurface cameras developed so far.

▲ The old miniature camera (left) and the new miniature camera (right). Picture from: Princeton

In the past, the miniature camera had limited field of view and ability to capture the full spectrum of visible light, and the image was blurred and severely distorted; the new miniature camera could produce clear and full-color images, except that the edge of the picture was a bit blurred, which was basically the same as the traditional refraction compound lens, the latter of which had a volume It is 500,000 times bigger than it.

▲ Picture from: Princeton

In addition, according to Felix Heide, assistant professor of computer science at Princeton, unlike previous metasurface cameras that require pure lasers in the laboratory or other ideal conditions to produce high-quality images, the performance of the new miniature cameras under natural light conditions has also been improved.

▲ Traditional lens (left) and "rice camera" (right). Picture from: Princeton

In the future, miniature cameras are likely to be commercialized. Colburn, a Ph.D. from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Washington, also participated in this research. He is directing system design at Tunoptix, a Seattle-based company, and plans to commercialize metasurface imaging technology.

At the same time, Dr. James Whitehead, from the same school as Colburn, fabricated a metasurface based on silicon nitride, a glass-like material compatible with standard semiconductor manufacturing methods used for computer chips-which means Compared with lenses in traditional cameras, a given metasurface design can be easily mass-produced at a lower cost.

The research team is now working hard to add more computing power to the camera itself. In addition to optimizing image quality, they also hope to increase object detection functions and apply them to medicine and robotics.

▲ Picture from: Princeton

For example, miniature cameras have great potential in detecting human problems and providing sensing for ultra-small robots. They can be used for minimally invasive endoscopes and medical robots, and can also improve the imaging of other robots limited by size and weight.

They also envisioned creating a "surface as a sensor," an array of thousands of "rice-grain cameras" that could be used for full-scene sensing, turning the surface into a camera:

We can turn a single surface into a camera with ultra-high resolution, so you no longer need three cameras on the back of your phone, and the entire back of the phone will become a huge camera. We can think of completely different ways to manufacture equipment in the future.

▲ Reference materials:
1.https://engineering.princeton.edu/news/2021/11/29/researchers-shrink-camera-size-salt-grain#research
2.https://light.princeton.edu/publication/neural-nano-optics/
3.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sAANU5TjS0

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