Microscopic camera created that’s as tiny as a grain of salt

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This itty-bitty camera can spot big problems.

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Washington have developed a camera so ultracompact that it’s the size of a minuscule grain of salt.

While the minicam is beyond pocket-sized and perhaps useful for covert spy photography, its purpose is far more ethical: to enable medical robots to diagnose and treat diseases through the least invasive endoscopies possible. 

The tiny camera’s image quality is not compromised by its diminutive size, as it can produce “crisp, full-color images” that are vastly better than “fuzzy, distorted” ones created using less advanced optics, according to a press release. Indeed, the researchers claim the camera produces images that are “on par with a conventional compound camera lens” 500,000 times its size. 

Rather than working like a traditional camera’s light-bending curved glass or plastic lens method, the ultracompact camera relies on an innovative new “metasurface” technology that is just a half-millimeter wide and is produced similarly to a computer chip. It features 1.6 million microscopic posts that function “like an optical antenna,” the release stated, and are approximately the same size as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). 

“Previous micro-sized cameras (left) captured fuzzy, distorted images with limited fields of view. A new system called neural nano-optics (right) can produce crisp, full-color images on par with a conventional compound camera lens,” according to researchers.
Princeton University / University of Washington

The new cam’s optical design itself is not new, but its abilities are pioneering in terms of processing and use of its tech, according to Joseph Mait, a former US Army Research Laboratory chief scientist.

“The significance of the published work is completing the Herculean task to jointly design the size, shape and location of the metasurface’s million features and the parameters of the post-detection processing to achieve the desired imaging performance,” he noted. 

“It’s been a challenge to design and configure these little nano-structures to do what you want,” said study co-lead and Princeton computer science Ph.D. student Ethan Tseng in the press release.

salt grain camera study
Experimental imaging results from the newly developed camera.
Nature.com

Study authors are now at work on applying their findings to other types of cameras beyond the microscopic medical field.

“We could turn individual surfaces into cameras that have ultrahigh resolution, so you wouldn’t need three cameras on the back of your phone anymore, but the whole back of your phone would become one giant camera,” said senior study author Felix Heide. “We can think of completely different ways to build devices in the future.”

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