Metalenz Wants to Jump-Start Phone Cameras Again With Better Lenses

A new company called Metalenz, which emerges from stealth mode today, is looking to disrupt smartphone cameras with a single, flat lens system that utilizes a technology called optical metasurfaces. A camera built around this new lens tech can produce an image of the same if not better quality as traditional lenses, collect more light for brighter photos, and can even enable new forms of sensing in phones, all while taking up less space.

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“The optics usually in smartphones nowadays consists of between four and seven lens elements,” says Oliver Schindelbeck, innovation manager at the optics manufacturer Zeiss, which is known for its high-quality lenses. “If you have a single lens element, just by physics you will have aberrations like distortion or dispersion in the image.”

More lenses allow manufacturers to compensate for irregularities like chromatic aberration (when colors appear on the fringes of an image) and lens distortion (when straight lines appear curved in a photo). However, stacking multiple lens elements on top of each other requires more vertical space inside the camera module.

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Phone makers like Apple have increased the number of lens elements over time, and while some, like Samsung, are now folding optics to create “periscope” lenses for greater zoom capabilities, companies have generally stuck with the tried-and-true stacked lens element system.

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Instead of using plastic and glass lens elements stacked over an image sensor, Metalenz’s design uses a single lens built on a glass wafer that is between 1×1 to 3×3 millimeter in size. Look very closely under a microscope and you’ll see nanostructures measuring one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Those nanostructures bend light rays in a way that corrects for many of the shortcomings of single-lens camera systems.

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Light passes through these patterned nanostructures, which look like millions of circles with differing diameters at the microscopic level. “Much in the way that a curved lens speeds up and slows down light to bend it, each one of these allows us to do the same thing, so we can bend and shape light just by changing the diameters of these circles,” Devlin says.

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nd the design doesn’t just conserve space. Devlin says a Metalenz camera can deliver more light back to the image sensor, allowing for brighter and sharper images than what you’d get with traditional lens elements.

Another benefit? The company has formed partnerships with two semiconductor leaders (that can currently produce a million Metalenz “chips” a day), meaning the optics are made in the same foundries that manufacture consumer and industrial devices—an important step in simplifying the supply chain.

New Forms of Sensing

Metalenz will go into mass production toward the end of the year. Its first application will be to serve as the lens system of a 3D sensor in a smartphone. (The company did not give the name of the phone maker.)

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Source: Metalenz Wants to Jump-Start Phone Cameras Again With Better Lenses | WIRED

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