Engineers develop smartphone camera lens that is 1,000x thinner than conventional lenses

Shawn Knight

TechSpot Staff
Staff member

Smartphone cameras have reached a level of performance that some thought was simply unattainable given the tiny amount of real estate to work with. Numerous advancements have made today’s camera systems a reality including the use of multiple lenses and cringe-worthy camera bumps. Recent trends suggest the camera bump is only going to get gaudier but the University of Utah has other plans.

Electrical and computer engineering researchers at the school have developed a new type of optical lens that is significantly thinner and lighter than conventional lenses. Whereas traditional smartphone camera lenses are a few millimeters thick, this new creation is only a few microns thick.

As electrical and computer engineering associate professor Rajesh Menon highlights, it is a hundred times lighter and a thousand times thinner. “The performance can be as good as conventional lenses,” he said.

How did they accomplish this, you ask? By fundamentally redesigning their lens to be flat instead of curved like a conventional lens through the use of many microstructures that bend light in the correct direction at the image sensor. “You can think of these microstructures as very small pixels of a lens,” Menon said. “They’re not a lens by themselves but all working together to act as a lens.”

The benefits don’t end there, however, as this new type of lens could also be cheaper to manufacture because it can be constructed from plastic instead of glass.

The team’s research is featured in the latest edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for those interested in digging a bit deeper.

Masthead credit: iPhone 11 by Hadrian

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IAMTHESTIG

TS Evangelist
Well, big heavy lenses have been a huge issue for smartphones for a long time.... wait.

Meh, how about we improve battery technology instead, that would be significantly more valuable to everyone. This sounds like trying to improve something that doesn't really need improving and isn't really a problem.

Now if we could get large amounts of optical zoom through a smartphone camera, then THAT would be something truly useful.
 

yRaz

Nigerian Prince
Meh, how about we improve battery technology instead, that would be significantly more valuable to everyone. This sounds like trying to improve something that doesn't really need improving and isn't really a problem.
I hate when people talk about battery tech. Just because battery tech doesn't improve at the rate of Moore's law doesn't mean it isn't improving. Remember when the first iPhone came out? You'd be lucky to get 4-5hours of heavy use out of it. I can go upwards of 3 days without charging my Google pixel XL and I'm not a light user.
 
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Evernessince

TS Evangelist
I hate when people talk about battery tech. Just because battery tech doesn't improve at the rate of Moore's law doesn't mean it isn't improving. Remember when the first iPhone came out? You'd be lucky to get 4-5hours of heavy use out of it. I can go upwards of 3 days without charging my Google pixel XL and I'm not a light user.
Wish I could say the same. My S10 only goes 18 hours on a charge and I rarely use it. Disabled and removed any bloatware as well. Even turned down the screen brightness quite a bit. This will be my last Samsung phone for awhile, both my S9 and S10 have had the same problem.
 

Josh232

TS Rookie
But why do we need an amazing camera in a phone? Does a phone need to do everything now? I only need my phone to call people, and perhaps text. My computer works for best browsing and my camera works best for taking pictures.

I guess I'm old school or contrarian. This is just another excuse to keep people buying overpriced new phones that we don't need, made by wage-slaves in China, which are making the shareholders at the top richer, while polluting the world with more electronic waste and frivolous consumption.
 
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Nobina

TS Evangelist
I never cared about the protruding camera lens. It's really a non-issue for me. There are many things I would focus on before buldging camera lenses.
 

Uncle Al

TS Evangelist
“The performance can be as good as conventional lenses”

Sorry buck'o but in today's markets "just as good" no longer cuts it and that suggests they can also be considerably lesser quality. Today's market demands greater and greater improvements. This would have been a great invention 10 years ago but for the quality that most users demand, a little extra bump isn't undesirable. Now, develop the same kind of lens that has needle sharpness and 100 mp of resolution and you'll get everyone's attention .....
 
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Shadowboxer

TS Addict
But why do we need an amazing camera in a phone? Does a phone need to do everything now? I only need my phone to call people, and perhaps text. My computer works for best browsing and my camera works best for taking pictures.

I guess I'm old school or contrarian. This is just another excuse to keep people buying overpriced new phones that we don't need, made by wage-slaves in China, which are making the shareholders at the top richer, while polluting the world with more electronic waste and frivolous consumption.
So you don’t think there is any advantage in carrying just one device instead of three (or more)? Personally I love phones having great cameras. I carry my phone all the time but I don’t carry my camera with me everywhere.

This is why people are getting rich off these modern electronics. Because they are bloody useful and we keep buying them!
 

wiyosaya

TS Evangelist
So you don’t think there is any advantage in carrying just one device instead of three (or more)? Personally I love phones having great cameras. I carry my phone all the time but I don’t carry my camera with me everywhere.

This is why people are getting rich off these modern electronics. Because they are bloody useful and we keep buying them!
For me, before buying a Moto X4 earlier this year, the last time I bought a cell phone was over seven years ago. I did not buy the Moto X4 for its camera. I have a DSLR for those times when I want to take photos. I probably will not buy another cell phone for another seven years at least.
 

IAMTHESTIG

TS Evangelist
I hate when people talk about battery tech. Just because battery tech doesn't improve at the rate of Moore's law doesn't mean it isn't improving. Remember when the first iPhone came out? You'd be lucky to get 4-5hours of heavy use out of it. I can go upwards of 3 days without charging my Google pixel XL and I'm not a light user.
No doubt it has gotten better, but it will never be good enough - that's why people talk about it. Even if we had batteries that could get you a week of heavy smartphone use, people would then start complaining that it can't go a month. It will never end...
 

IAMTHESTIG

TS Evangelist
But why do we need an amazing camera in a phone? Does a phone need to do everything now? I only need my phone to call people, and perhaps text. My computer works for best browsing and my camera works best for taking pictures.

I guess I'm old school or contrarian. This is just another excuse to keep people buying overpriced new phones that we don't need, made by wage-slaves in China, which are making the shareholders at the top richer, while polluting the world with more electronic waste and frivolous consumption.
Yes. That is pretty much what people expect of their phones. And, for the most basic things in our lives they do do everything. It's about convenience. Being able to quickly and easily take a high quality photo without having to lug around a DSLR camera and lenses is a huge benefit to those who wish to capture proof of their memories.

You are certainly right though it isn't necessary, and the amount of smartphones and electric waste is absolutely ridiculous. Very few people care unfortunately, consumers and manufactures alike. Waste is an issue for the next generations to worry about. The same issue exists with just about everything, like automobiles for example. Who keeps a care over 100,000 miles anymore? Almost no one...
 

IAMTHESTIG

TS Evangelist
I never cared about the protruding camera lens. It's really a non-issue for me. There are many things I would focus on before buldging camera lenses.
It isn't really the lens protruding on phones, it is the camera module itself. It is annoying if you ever want to set your phone back down on a flat surface and use it - it will not be level. Only solutions are a case, which most people do anyway so it is a non-issue for most people but there are a few of us who prefer our phones to be 'naked'. I'm one of them...
 

Markoni35

TS Addict
But why do we need an amazing camera in a phone? Does a phone need to do everything now? I only need my phone to call people, and perhaps text. My computer works for best browsing and my camera works best for taking pictures.

I guess I'm old school or contrarian. This is just another excuse to keep people buying overpriced new phones that we don't need, made by wage-slaves in China, which are making the shareholders at the top richer, while polluting the world with more electronic waste and frivolous consumption.
Because when AI analyzes your selfies, it doesn't just want the pic of you anymore. It's power has grown exponentially, and now it tracks the people behind you, even far behind you. Same goes for the front camera. You may be taking a pic of that monument, but AI will nevertheless find the faces of all the people in the pic. Even those far away. So they (where "they" can be Google, NSA, Chinese agencies, etc) need high-resolution pics from your camera.

Or haven't you noticed that cellphones now have 20 mpix cameras? Yep. That many dots. But you don't really need 20 mpix photos of your dog. They just take up lots of space on your phone or SSD. So, why would you need them? Well... there are people and organizations who need such pics. They want you to share your pics everywhere. And what's "best", they won't even pay you for using your pics. Cheap bastards, aren't they?