Photography

Tiny salt-grain-sized camera snaps hi-res full-color images

Tiny salt-grain-sized camera s...
The tiny new camera sensor measures just half a millimeter wide
The tiny new camera sensor measures just half a millimeter wide
View 2 Images
The tiny new camera sensor measures just half a millimeter wide
1/2
The tiny new camera sensor measures just half a millimeter wide
A comparison of images taken by a previous tiny image sensor (left) and the team's new metasurface sensor (right)
2/2
A comparison of images taken by a previous tiny image sensor (left) and the team's new metasurface sensor (right)

Researchers at Princeton and the the University of Washington have developed a tiny camera, the size of a grain of salt, which can snap sharp, full-color images. It’s made with a metasurface that captures light, which could be scaled up to turn entire surfaces into sensors.

The device looks like little more than a clear panel with a circular pattern etched into it. That half-millimeter-wide circle contains 1.6 million cylinders, each carefully designed to bend light in just the right way so that the array as a whole shapes the optical wavefront. Signal processing algorithms then produce an image from that data.

The resulting images are far more crisp than other small sensors. In tests, the team showed that the new sensor captured images measuring 720 x 720 pixels in full color, capturing wavelengths between 400 and 700 nm in natural light, with a spatial resolution of 214 line pairs per mm. It has a field of view of 40 degrees and an f-number of 2, and the researchers say that the shots are on par with those captured by a conventional compound camera lens that’s half a million times bigger than their new sensor.

A comparison of images taken by a previous tiny image sensor (left) and the team's new metasurface sensor (right)
A comparison of images taken by a previous tiny image sensor (left) and the team's new metasurface sensor (right)

The post-processing algorithms do much of the heavy lifting in improving the image quality, and these were designed alongside the metasurface to ensure they worked well together.

Another advantage is that the devices are simple to produce, meaning they should be relatively easy to scale up for production. They’re made of silicon nitride, and the nanostructures of the surface can be produced using deep ultraviolet lithography, a technique already used to make semiconductors.

If they were to be mass produced, the team says that the devices could be used for medical imaging in the body, providing small robots with better vision, or even turning basically anything into a camera by lining a surface with thousands of these sensors.

“We could turn individual surfaces into cameras that have ultra-high resolution, so you wouldn’t need three cameras on the back of your phone anymore, but the whole back of your phone would become one giant camera,” says Felix Heide, senior author of the study. “We can think of completely different ways to build devices in the future.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: Princeton University

9 comments
9 comments
Robt
This technology is both awesome and terrifying…
Great for medical purposes, and your front porch, but the thought of any surface becoming a camera accelerates our current trend towards a one hundred percent surveillance society. Ugh
David
Not long now before we have integrated technology envisioned by Corning's video series A Day Made Of Glass.
Chris Coles
This opens a completely new world of imaging; over the entire imaging industry.
sidmehta
"post-processing algorithms do most of the heavy lifting" Please show us the raw image then.
michael_dowling
This development brings to mind a sci-fi story I read years ago where crystals of what look like salt could be thrown under a door,and record images of what was going on on the other side of the door.
noteugene
Agree with Robt 100%. I think mostly terrifying. What can we do with cameras everywhere & our government turns against us? 1 step closer to totalarism. Terrifying thought. With 5G, soon to come 6G, now this, we could be about 5 yrs from that.
FB36
"the whole back of your phone would become one giant camera":

Where really such tech would cause a revolution maybe both ground-based & space-based astronomy, IMHO!
Keep trying to build bigger & bigger telescopes using same old mirror-based tech means astronomical costs!
& they are still not good enough for direct imaging of alien planets etc!
But imagine if we could build telescopes of any size by simply adding more flat panels!
Rusty Harris
Sorry, if you have to have THAT much "post processing" it is an ARTIFICIAL photo.

The post-processing algorithms do much of the heavy lifting in improving the image quality
Kevin Ritchey
I’m not buying it as being quite that great. We could easily take normal photos and add whatever imaging algorithms we like. Just what is the original on which we base the enhanced result?