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No-lens FlatCam (Image 2)

Jesse Adams (left) and Vivek Boominathan, with FlatCam prototype

Jesse Adams (left) and Vivek Boominathan, both Rice University graduate students, set up a test shot with a recent FlatCam prototype. [Image 2 of 3 related images. See Image 3.]

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Researchers at Rice University have invented the FlatCam, a device that's little more than a thin sensor chip with a mask that replaces lenses in a traditional camera.

Developed in the labs of Rice electrical and computer engineers Richard Baraniuk and Ashok Veeraraghavan, FlatCam has sophisticated computer algorithms that process what the sensor detects and converts the sensor measurements into images and videos.

Widespread adoption of cameras in smartphones is causing the design of traditional cameras to shrink. But they all require lenses, and the post-fabrication assembly required to integrate lenses into cameras raises their cost, according to the researchers. FlatCam eliminates those issues and is also thin and flexible enough for applications that traditional devices cannot serve.

FlatCams can be fabricated like microchips, with the precision, speed and associated reduction in costs, says Veeraraghavan. Without lenses, he says the most recent prototype (patented) is thinner than a dime.

"As traditional cameras get smaller, their sensors also get smaller, and this means they collect very little light," says Veeraraghavan. "The low-light performance of a camera is tied to the surface area of the sensor. Unfortunately, since all camera designs are basically cubes, surface area is tied to thickness. Our design decouples the two parameters, providing the ability to utilize the enhanced light-collection abilities of large sensors with a really thin device."

Veeraraghavan says FlatCams may find use in security or disaster-relief applications and as flexible, foldable wearable and even disposable cameras.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Read more about this research in the Rice news story No lens? No problem for FlatCam. (Date image taken: 2015; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: April 17, 2018)

Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University
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