Paper-thin lenses could eliminate the smartphone camera bump

University of Utah

Researchers have developed a flat lens that could see cameras and everything that uses them undergo a design makeover for the better.

Cameras capture images using curved lenses, through which different colors of light bend and pass through. The light comes together in the camera's sensor at the same point to form a focused image. It's based on the concept of refraction, and typically requires a number of curved lenses stacked together, as different colors bend differently.

But multiple curved lenses stacked together also means camera bumps on smartphones, bulky digital camera lenses or even thick prescription eyeglasses.

Now, a professor and his team from the engineering college at the University of Utah have developed a new super-thin, flat lens that could change the way cameras are designed, eliminating the annoying and at times unsightly bumps and bulk.

Redesigning color curves

Professor Rajesh Menon and his team's findings are detailed in a paper published today in Scientific Reports. They describe a lens that's thinner than a human hair and uses diffraction rather than the refraction of today's lenses.

"Our results correct a widespread misconception that flat, diffractive lenses cannot be corrected for all colors simultaneously," Menon said.

The team uses specially created algorithms to calculate the geometry of a lens to ensure the different colors of light passing through it focus to a single point, just as a curved lens would. The result is called a "super-achromatic lens," which can be made of any transparent material, such as glass or even plastic.

And, surprisingly, Menon said we could see these new thinner, lighter lenses in smartphones, medical equipment and digital cameras within five years. That's not to say these new lenses will make your old DSLR obsolete, or that Apple will be jumping on the new tech for the iPhone 8 or 9, but it's a sign we could be looking at thinner smartphones and lighter digital camera lenses sooner rather than later.

Top image credit: University of Utah, College of Engineering