Caltech researchers have developed a camera that does not require a lens, which could result in interesting trends in mobile device designs once the technology matures. In traditional cameras, lenses serve to bend the incoming ray of light and focus these rays direct to the film or the sensor of the camera. However, since lenses require a significant amount of space in order to function, cameras can limit the smallest possible dimensions of mobile devices like smartphones. As device makers try to find ways to make devices thinner without sacrificing image quality, there is undoubtedly a demand for cameras that lack lenses. For smartphone manufacturers, the development of a lens-free camera could result in thinner devices without the unsightly camera bump.
To replace the functionality usually offered by lenses, the researchers over at Caltech developed what it calls the optical phased array. The optical phased array is composed of a thin layer of silicon photonics that works both as a lens and as a sensor. The array works by canceling the light waves that travel from all directions except for the one specified by either the user or the software, resulting in an amplified light signal that will later be processed by the sensor. In order to achieve the desired result, it is also important that the array can be controlled within a quadrillionth of a second. Another key advantage of replacing lenses with optical phased arrays is that it can switch between different lens effects by simply changing the way the array receives light. Therefore, cameras with optical phased arrays may produce either fisheye or telephoto images simply by toggling a switch in the settings of the camera app.
However, it will still take a long time before these cameras are finalized. The researchers over at Caltech were able to produce a working 2D lensless camera in the earlier part of 2017, but the camera is of very low resolution. Nonetheless, the fact that the low-resolution lensless camera is working bodes well for the future of lensless cameras. Moving forward, the researchers are now striving to make the lensless cameras work in devices requiring high resolution and increased sensitivity.