the universities of princeton and washington are developing a nanocamera

a grain of salt or a camera? researchers from princeton and washington universities are developing an ultracompact camera which can produce crisp, color images on par with a conventional compound camera lens 500,000 times the volume. the system is based on a technology called “metasurface”, dotted with 1.6 million cylindrical posts. the device can be produced much like a computer chip!

“We could turn individual surfaces into ultra-high resolution cameras, so you wouldn’t need three cameras on the back of your phone anymore, but the entire back of your phone would become a giant camera. we can think of completely different ways of building devices in the future, ‘ says Felix Heide, lead author of the study and assistant professor of computer science at Princeton.

(above) The ultracompact camera is based on a technology called a metasurface, which is dotted with 1.6 million cylindrical positions and can be produced much like a computer chip.

(banner) video from princeton computer imaging lab

image courtesy of the researchers / source: princeton university

the system can be mass produced at lower costs than a conventional camera

Microscopic systems have always had great potential for detecting abnormalities in the human body as well as allowing the detection of very small robots, but approaches not have captured blurry and distorted images with limited fields of view. finally, the authors of Princeton University and the Washington University overcame these obstacles. While a traditional camera uses a series of curved glass or plastic lenses to focus light rays, the optical system relies on a technology called a metasurface. This is made with a glass-like material that is compatible with standard manufacturing methods, meaning that the design can be easily mass-produced at lower costs than conventional lenses.

researchers develop ultra-compact camera the size of a grain of salt
side-by-side comparisons between the conventional camera (left) and the nano camera (right)

excerpt from the video / source: Princeton University Computer Imaging Laboratory

Barely half a millimeter wide, each of the 1.6 million positions of the nanoscale device functions as an optical antenna. varying the design of each station is necessary to properly shape the entire optical wavefront. Using algorithms based on machine learning, each station’s interaction with light combines to produce the highest quality images and the widest field of view.

due to the number of antennas and the complexity of their interactions with light, this type of simulation can use massive amounts of memory and time, ‘ explains co-lead author Shane Colburn.

researchers develop ultra-compact camera the size of a grain of salt
previous micro-sized cameras (left) captured blurry and distorted images with limited fields of view. a new system called neuronal nano-optics (right) can produce crisp, color images comparable to those of a conventional compound camera lens.

image courtesy of the researchers / source: princeton university

“Although the optical design approach is not new, it is the first system to use surface optical technology on the front and neural processing on the rear. the importance of the published work is to complete the Herculean task of jointly designing the size, shape and location of the millions of metasurface features and post-detection processing parameters to achieve the desired imaging performance, ‘ says joseph mait, consultant at mait-optik and former principal investigator and chief scientist at the us army research lab.

researchers develop ultra-compact camera the size of a grain of salt
comparison between neutral nano-optics (left) and ground truth with compound optics (right)

image source: nature communication

the camera could allow endoscopy to diagnose diseases

Felix Heide, the lead author of the study, also plans to use ultracompact imagers to create surfaces as sensors. Activated by a joint design on hardware and computer processing, the system could enable minimally invasive endoscopy with medical robots to diagnose and treat disease, and improve imaging for other robots with constraints of size and weight.

“It was a challenge to design and configure these little nanostructures to do what you want”, said ethan tseng, a computer doctor. student at princeton who co-led the study. “For this specific task of capturing large-field-of-view RGB images, it was previously unclear how to co-design the millions of nanostructures with post-processing algorithms.”

researchers develop ultra-compact camera the size of a grain of salt
existing peak images (two on the left) compared to the nano-camera (second from the right) and ground truth with compound optics (right)

image source: nature communication

project information:

to research: princeton university, Washington University

authors: Felix heide, ethan yseng, arka majumdar, Shane Colburn, joseph mait, luocheng huang, james whitehead

supported by: National Science Foundation, US Department of Defense, UW Reality Lab, facebook, google, futurewei technologies, amazon

year: 2021


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