New Meta-Optic Lens Tech Enters Commercial Development

Massachusetts-based startup Metalenz, just out of stealth mode, is readying the debut of an entirely new lens system for smartphones. Its single flat lens system, based on optical metasurfaces, reportedly produces an image of the same or better quality as traditional lenses, while enabling brighter photos by collecting more light, and offering new forms of sensing. The company just announced a $10 million investment that will enable it to scale production and speed up development of miniature optics and a new lens system targeting smartphones, consumer electronics and applications in the automotive and healthcare industries.

Although lenses on current phones have dramatically improved from 2 megapixels on the first iPhone to sensors up to 108 megapixels on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the technology behind them has otherwise largely remained the same.

Wired reports Zeiss innovation manager Oliver Schindelbeck explained that, “the optics usually in smartphones nowadays consists of between four and seven lens elements.” “If you have a single lens element, just by physics you will have aberrations like distortion or dispersion in the image,” he added.

Adding components can “compensate for irregularities like chromatic aberration (when colors appear on the fringes of an image) and lens distortion (when straight lines appear curved in a photo)” but take up more space, which is why modern cameras have a camera “bump.”

Instead, Metalenz technology is a “single lens built on a glass wafer that is between 1×1 to 3×3 millimeter in size” with nanostructures that “bend light rays in a way that corrects for many of the shortcomings of single-lens camera systems.” Company co-founder and chief executive Robert Devlin spent a decade at Harvard University working on his Ph.D. on this topic with Metalenz co-founder and physicist Federico Capasso. The company spun out of their research group in 2017.

Devlin said that the nanostructures enable them to bend and shape light “much in the way that a curved lens speeds up and slows down light to bend it.” The resulting image is “just as sharp as what you’d get from a multilens system,” with the nanostructures eliminating or reducing aberrations “common to traditional cameras.”

Metalenz has inked partnerships with “two semiconductor leaders … meaning the optics are made in the same foundries that manufacture consumer and industrial devices — an important step in simplifying the supply chain.” The company is slated to “go into mass production toward the end of the year” to provide “the lens system of a 3D sensor in an [unnamed] smartphone.”

Since the Metalenz technology collects more light, Devlin said it can help conserve battery power that is drained by “current 3D sensors like Apple’s TrueDepth camera for Face ID.” It will also “eliminate the need for a bulky camera notch jutting into the screen … [and] will enable more phone makers to put sensors and cameras beneath a device’s glass display.”

Devlin also pointed out that Metalenz technology can be used “in everything from instruments for healthcare to augmented- and virtual-reality cameras, to the cameras in automobiles.”