Photography

Ditching the lens enables superslim FlatCam that's thinner than a dime

Ditching the lens enables supe...
The researchers say it is early days, but the FlatCam concept opens up all kinds of imaging possibilities
The researchers say it is early days, but the FlatCam concept opens up all kinds of imaging possibilities
View 8 Images
Light data passes through onto the sensor, which is then relayed to a desktop computer where algorithms use the information to construct an image
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Light data passes through onto the sensor, which is then relayed to a desktop computer where algorithms use the information to construct an image
Light data passes through onto the sensor, which is then relayed to a desktop computer where algorithms use the information to construct an image
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Light data passes through onto the sensor, which is then relayed to a desktop computer where algorithms use the information to construct an image
The researchers say that as manufacturing techniques and the algorithms progress, so too will the resolution of the images
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The researchers say that as manufacturing techniques and the algorithms progress, so too will the resolution of the images
Light data passes through onto the sensor, which is then relayed to a desktop computer where algorithms use the information to construct an image
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Light data passes through onto the sensor, which is then relayed to a desktop computer where algorithms use the information to construct an image
The researchers say that as manufacturing techniques and the algorithms progress, so too will the resolution of the images
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The researchers say that as manufacturing techniques and the algorithms progress, so too will the resolution of the images
FlatCam can produce 512 x 512 resolution images in seconds
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FlatCam can produce 512 x 512 resolution images in seconds
The researchers say it is early days and the FlatCam concept opens up all kinds of possibilities
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The researchers say it is early days and the FlatCam concept opens up all kinds of possibilities
The researchers say it is early days, but the FlatCam concept opens up all kinds of imaging possibilities
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The researchers say it is early days, but the FlatCam concept opens up all kinds of imaging possibilities
View gallery - 8 images

Much has changed in camera design over the years, but snapping photos and shooting video still invariably requires a lens to capture light and focus on a subject. But if a camera could somehow replicate this process digitally, making relatively chunky lens attachments completely unnecessary, what would be left to look at? Well, going by new research underway at Rice University, not really much at all. Engineers have produced a functional camera that is thinner than a dime, raising the possibility of tiny, flexible versions that could one day be embedded in everything from your wallpaper to your credit card.

Aptly dubbed FlatCam, the device is the handiwork of electrical and computer engineers at Rice University who are looking to challenge what an imaging device looks like. While smartphones have brought about a huge reduction in the size of cameras, they do still require a lens, which necessitates a three-dimensional cube-like shape. This ties the possible surface area of the sensor to the thickness of the device, and because sensor size dictates the ability to collect light, means performance is often compromised in smaller cameras.

This is one of the design challenges the team is seeking to overcome, looking to harness the enhanced light collection of a larger sensor, while maintaining a compact form, albeit in a different shape. The way the've approached this is by turning to one of the camera's very early iterations, the pinhole camera design. Where these first cameras had a single hole, allowing light to pass through and project onto a surface, the FlatCam has a mask over its off-the-shelf sensor dotted with a grid-like pattern of different aperture sizes.

These allow different light data through onto the sensor, which is then relayed to a desktop computer where algorithms use the information to construct an image. In its current form, FlatCam can produce with a resolution of 512 x 512 in seconds, though the researchers say that as manufacturing techniques and the algorithms progress, so too will the resolution of the images.

FlatCam can produce 512 x 512 resolution images in seconds
FlatCam can produce 512 x 512 resolution images in seconds

While the images snapped with FlatCam won't be winning any photography contests, the researchers say it is still early days and the concept opens up all kinds of possibilities, with work already underway on the next generation.

"We can make curved cameras, or wallpaper that's actually a camera," says Richard Baraniuk, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University. "You can have a camera on your credit card or a camera in an ultrathin tablet computer."

Other potential uses for super-thin cameras include disaster relief and security applications. And as there is no lens involved, the costs associated with manufacturing and then attaching them to a camera would be avoided, making the FlatCam a cheap alternative.

You can read a paper outlining the research online here.

The video below features the researchers giving an overview of the device.

Source: Rice University

No lens? No problem for FlatCam

View gallery - 8 images
5 comments
Keith Reeder
http://www.technologyreview.com/view/515651/bell-labs-invents-lensless-camera/
Mark Salamon
I'm wondering if the perforated focusing element in these FlatCam lensless cameras could be made from a 2-dimensional material like graphene, which might offer extremely accurate light resolution while adding essentially no bulk to the device. If the FlatCam is improved so that it can match the image quality and cost of present-day digital cameras, it will probably replace lens-based optics in a wide variety of consumer products. This may also depend on the degree of computing power required by the algorithm that creates the picture (though I'm guessing that would be accomplished by a chip designed to work efficiently at this specific task). Thanks for this article!
StWils
More to the point, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote, in the 1950s, "Any sufficiently developed technology will seem as Magic.." Currently we talk about these systems as singular individual components because currently that pretty much is what they are, independent pieces. However, as this flat camera improves it will be practical to fully integrate sensor dots with a processor running wave front algorithms to generate an input image that can then be remotely transmitted and displayed on another screen. Literally, the camera and display screen can be fully seamlessly integrated into a singular device. Think of this as a cell phone screen and camera as one singular device containing it's own needed image processor. The "off device" components would be the parts that transmit an image or video stream of images with other system components such as the "Main Processor" being relatively out of the direct loop. Again, any sufficiently developed technology will seem as Magic.
MQ
These researchers are obviously at the bleeding edge of their field.
I have often wondered why one couldn't use a parallel or fan beam multiple hole collimator like what is used in Nuclear Gamma cameras.
When I was working in Nuclear Medicine (and had these Ideas) over a decade ago, this was (probably) beyond the realm of commercial possibility, but so were 42 Megapixel CMOS sensors.
Like the above Idea about using Graphene (that may not work because the graphene is way smaller than the wavelength of light causing severe diffraction artefact) with today's technology in the realm of micromachining, it should be possible to make a highly efficient parallel/convergent/divergent collimator at the same scale as a high resolution camera sensor.
The benefit with collimation would be that the image processing time should be simpler than using the method with multiple pinholes as reported in this article.
Obviously IF a lytro effect were desired, a high resolution sensor could be divided up into multiple effective "micro-collectors"
BUT Collimation MAY allow infinite depth of focus.
For industrial applications, the benefit would be all depths of field would simultaneously be in focus. With maximum light collection.
For a 360x360^o Spherical view the sensor, and integrated collimator would be manufactured as a sphere, perfect image registration, with simple mapping for flat images.
Bruce H. Anderson
A smaller camera would mean less payload, which would be huge for aerial drone flight times.