The most unsightly part of your cell phone is probably that camera module. It likely protrudes from the back of your immaculately designed pieces of hardware like a relic from a bygone era, tarnishing the smooth lines and thin frame that made you buy your phone in the first place. It’s a bummer we have to deal with those camera humps, but they’re necessary given the way lenses work today.
The same goes for the detachable lenses on your DSLR. Put simply, lenses are heavy, expensive to produce, and are compromised of layers and layers of curved glass to help capture light and take incredible pictures. The layers of curved glass correct distortions and capture visible light. These necessary corrections through these curved lenses is the reason why telescopes and microscopes are so large. Glass on glass on glass.
If you’ve ever watched a marketing video about a cell phone camera, you’ve probably seen this illustrated: a bunch of tiny little pieces all stacking on top of each other to form a camera module that will take only the most impressive selfies. Dramatic and flashy for a video, but, unfortunately, lots of tiny pieces means complications, increased costs, and bulky cameras.
The good news for you and your future, camera bump-less smartphones is that scientists have found a way to removed the stacks of curved glass and, instead, manufacture one solid, flat plane of glass to do all of the work. It’s called a metalens.
Metalenses are, frankly, pretty sweet. As distances between objects vary, so too do the wavelengths of their light to your camera’s sensor. When light enters the metalens, an array of tiny waveguides (don’t question it) correct light as it enters the camera. This eliminates the need for curved glass and, most importantly, metalenses work with the entire spectrum of visual light. Did you think that a camera lens was just a simple piece of glass that captures the world around you? Yeah, not so much. All of the light coming into your camera has to hit the sensor juuuuust right, making the job of capturing images a bit more complicated than you’d think.
According to the journal, Science: “This technology is potentially revolutionary because it works in the visible spectrum, which means it has the capacity to replace lenses in all kinds of devices, from microscopes to camera, to displays and cell phones,” said Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering and senior author of the paper. “In the near future, metalenses will be manufactured on a large scale at a small fraction of the cost of conventional lenses…”
Should these little lenses make it into your cell phone, it will mean cheaper phones, better images, and thinner phones without camera humps. I don’t know about you, but when I dream of the future of phones, there’s no unsightly bulge on the back. Metalenses, thinner than any camera lens before it, opens up a world of potential for not just smartphone photography, but lenses in general. Metalenses won’t be making their way into your hands any time soon, but, when you hear Apple or Canon bragging about their metalens technology years from now, you can you heard it here first.