This metasurface camera is the size of a grain of salt!

camera as small as a grain of salt
(Image credit: Princeton University)

An ultra-compact metasurface camera, equivalent to the size of a coarse grain of salt, has been developed by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Washington. This creation could allow for small robots to sense close-proximity surroundings and potentially help doctors detect problems in the human body.

This metasurface camera has limitless potential, having overcome past problems whereby it captured distorted and fuzzy images with a limited field of view. Now the camera can produce crisp, full-color images on par with that of a conventional compound camera lens, 500,000 times larger in volume. 

 The world's smallest camera is the size of a grain of sand

The camera system relies on what's called metasurface camera technology, studded with 1.6 million cylindrical posts, produced similarly to a computer chip. In a Nature Communications article, the researchers reported that this nano-optic imager (camera) "combines the widest field-of-view for full-color metasurface operation while simultaneously achieving the largest demonstrated aperture of 0.5 mm at an f-number of 2". 

Previous micro-sized cameras (left) vs newer neural nano-optics system (right) (Image credit: Princeton University)

The researchers continue to elaborate that, "miniaturization of intensity sensors in recent decades has made today's cameras ubiquitous across many application domains… however, imagers that are an order of magnitude smaller could enable numerous novel applications in nano-robotics, vivo imaging, AR / VR [augmented and virtual reality], and health monitoring". 

This development undoubtedly has a lot of people excited, and rightly so! Arrays of thousands of these ultra-compact cameras could potentially be used for full-scenery sensing, essentially turning surfaces into cameras. The coarse grain camera in question is just half of a millimeter wide, with the cylindrical posts each having a unique geometry and functions such as an optical antenna. 

Each tiny post (all 1.6 million cylinders) have varying designs that come together to correctly shape the entire optical wavefront, interacting with light combining to produce the highest possible image quality that a micro-camera of this size is currently capable of. 

Aside from some slight blurring at the edges of the image, this camera is performing excellently in comparison to previous attempts and we should expect to see some phenomenal advancements with the application of this camera in modern science and technologies . 

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Beth Nicholls
Staff Writer

A staff writer for Digital Camera World, Beth has an extensive background in various elements of technology with five years of experience working as a tester and sales assistant for CeX. After completing a degree in Music Journalism, followed by obtaining a Master's degree in Photography awarded by the University of Brighton, she spends her time outside of DCW as a freelance photographer specialising in live music events and band press shots under the alias 'bethshootsbands'.