A Microscopic Lens-Free Image Sensor Could Turn Anything Into A Camera

A Microscopic Lens-Free Image Sensor Could Turn Anything Into A Camera

This tiny piece of glass may not look like much, but in fact its surface is cleverly etched to capture light, and it contains a small chip to process the incident light. Yep, it’s a tiny camera that could provide any object — however small — with the means of capturing images.

The idea behind the new sensor, developed by Rambus, is simple: shrinking a real lens only works up to a certain point; when it gets too small, grinding the precise curvature of a lens becomes practically impossible. Instead, this sensor detects light passing through an etched surface and then uses some computing to reconstruct an image.

The action takes place on a spiral-etched grating on the surface of the glass, which measures just 200 microns in diameter — about the same size as a pencil point. The results aren’t perfect, but they’re great given how small the sensor is. Technology Review’s Rachel Metz explains:

Patrick Gill [from Rambus] is excited to show me a small, fuzzy-looking picture of the Mona Lisa, printed in black and white on a piece of paper. It’s not much to look at, literally, but it’s unmistakably her, with long dark hair and that mysterious smile.

So, a little fuzzy, maybe, but good enough for some applications — and it’s the applications that are exciting. “Our aim is to add eyes to any digital device, no matter how small,” Gill explained to Technology Review. Imagine, basically, adding a camera to any old object — medical devices, toys, clothes, whatever — without any extra bulk or weight.

Anything and everything around you could be capable of capturing images. That could be a little worrying in privacy terms — but it’s also a massive step forward for the connected world. [Rambus via Technology Review]