This Start-Up Wants to Change Mobile Imaging

Metalenz plans to make multiple lenses in cameras redundant

Metalenz, a start-up based in Boston, plans to disrupt smartphone camera technology by using a single flat-lens system that it calls “optical metasurface”. The company says that its method of imaging and illumination, which replaces conventional lenses with an ultrathin, flat optical microchip, could transform consumer electronics.

The sensors designed by Metalenz are based on meta-optic technology pioneered by scientists at Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Metalenz was co-founded in 2017 by Robert Devlin and Federico Capasso, a professor of applied physics.

Although there have been vast improvements in digital imaging over the years, lens technology has remained relatively unchanged. The emerging field of meta-optics, or optical metasurfaces, focusses on engineered materials with patterned structures that are 1,000 times smaller than a human hair and specifically designed to exploit properties that can’t be obtained from bulk natural materials.

According to Metalenz, cameras built with this new lens technology can produce better-quality pictures, collect more light for brighter photos and enable new forms of sensing in smartphones — all while taking up less space on the device and causing less drain on the battery. These are exciting promises that could make smartphones more attractive to consumers.

The company envisions its single-lens system in camera modules found in smartphones, boosting their photographic capabilities and perhaps allowing people to take pictures approaching professional levels, even in unfavourable conditions. Several smartphone-makers are working on putting 3D sensors in their camera modules; at present, Apple includes multiple image sensors in its rear camera module to render 3D imagery.

Metalenz chips could power the imaging of future generations of smartphones. Apple’s TrueDepth camera for Face ID illuminates a scene with lasers to scan faces, but this can be a drain on the battery. This shortcoming can be addressed with Metalenz technology, which allows more light into the image sensor, helping to conserve power. Furthermore, in a 3D sensor on the front of a phone for face authentication, for example, Metalenz could eliminate the need for a bulky camera notch jutting into the screen, like in current iPhones. The amount of space saved by removing traditional lens elements will enable more phone-makers to put sensors and cameras beneath a device’s glass display.

The technology developed by Metalenz isn’t limited to smartphones; according to the company, its sensors could be used in everything from medical devices to augmented and virtual reality cameras as well as car cameras, because they enable brighter, higher-quality infrared pictures than conventional camera lenses.

Metalenz has formed partnerships with semiconductor companies and will go into mass production toward the end of 2021. Having lens production adjacent to core electronic fabrication is a big draw for manufacturers as it simplifies the supply chain by removing an existing dependency on outside lens manufacturing. The first deployment for the start-up’s technology will be to serve as the lens system of a 3D sensor in a smartphone, but Metalenz has yet to reveal the phone-maker’s identity.