smartphone camera taking pictures at gig

Special lens design could see high-quality, wide-angle cameras in smartphones

Image credit: Dreamstime

A new type of compact camera that can acquire high-quality wide-angle images, using a special lens, has been developed by researchers from Nanjing University.

The lens is composed of flat, nanopatterned surfaces that can manipulate light. They eliminate the need for bulky and heavy lenses typically required for this type of imaging, which could enable wide-angle cameras to be incorporated into smartphones and portable imaging devices for vehicles such as cars or drones.

The new camera is just 0.3cm thick and can produce clear images of a scene with a viewing angle greater than 120°.

Wide-angle imaging is useful for capturing large amounts of information for photographs of vistas and other wide shots. For machine vision applications such as autonomous driving and drone-based surveillance, wide-angle imaging can enhance performance and safety, for example by revealing an obstacle you couldn’t otherwise see while backing up in a vehicle.

“To create an extremely compact wide-angle camera, we used an array of ‘metalenses’ that each capture certain parts of the wide-angle scene,” said lead researcher Tao Li. “The images are then stitched together to create a wide-angle image without any degradation in image quality.”

Wide-angle imaging is usually accomplished with a fish-eye compound lens or other type of multilayer lens. Although researchers have previously tried to use metalenses to create wide-angle cameras, they tend to suffer from poor image quality or other drawbacks.

In the new work, the researchers used an array of metalenses that are each carefully designed to focus a different range of illumination angles. This allows each lens to clearly image part of a wide-angle object or scene. The clearest parts of each image can then be computationally stitched together to create the final image.

“Thanks to the flexible design of the metasurfaces, the focusing and imaging performance of each lens can be optimised independently,” said Li. “This gives rise to a high-quality final wide-angle image after a stitching process. What’s more, the array can be manufactured using just one layer of material, which helps keep costs down.”

To demonstrate the new approach, the researchers used nanofabrication to create a metalens array and mounted it directly to a CMOS sensor, creating a planar camera that measured about 1cm × 1cm × 0.3cm. They then used this camera to image a wide-angle scene created by using two projectors to illuminate a curved screen surrounding the camera at a distance of 15cm.

They compared their new planar camera with one based on a single traditional metalens while imaging the words “Nanjing University” projected across the curved screen. The planar camera produced an image that showed every letter clearly and had a viewing angle larger than 120°, more than three times larger than that of the camera based on a traditional metalens.

The researchers note that the planar camera demonstrated in this research used individual metalenses just 0.3mm in diameter. They plan to enlarge these to about 1 to 5mm to increase the camera’s imaging quality. After optimisation, the array could be mass produced to reduce the cost of each device.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles