Bendable 'wallpaper' cameras are right around the corner

In the latest manifestation of a growing trend – the miniaturization of technology – tiny adaptable lenses have been melded together on flexible sheets, offering the promise of flexible cameras.

Columbia Computer Vision Laboratory, 2016/Columbia Engineering
Columbia Engineering researchers have developed a novel sheet camera that can be wrapped around everyday objects to capture images that cannot be taken with one or more conventional cameras. They designed and fabricated a flexible lens array that adapts its optical properties when the sheet camera is bent. This optical adaptation enables the sheet camera to produce high quality images over a wide range of sheet deformations.

Researchers have taken a giant leap toward the production of flexible cameras – sheets of lenses that can twist and deform, allowing you to wrap them around just about anything you might choose, providing you with fields of view unimaginable with current technology.

Like something from science fiction, the flexible lens array, designed by scientists at Columbia University in New York, has the ability to adapt its optical properties when bent.

The development represents the latest in a growing trend of technology becoming ever thinner, ever smaller, allowing scientists to delve into realms that were previously beyond their grasp.

“We are exploring ways to capture visual information in unconventional ways,” coauthor Shree Nayar, a professor of computer science at Columbia, told Discovery News. “If you could spread a camera out like paper or cloth, with similar material properties as fabric or paper so you could wrap it around objects [such as a] car or a pole.”

To achieve this, the researchers contemplated attaching a rigid lens with fixed focal length to each detector on a flexible array; the fatal flaw in such a system, however, would be that as the array bent, gaps would appear in the field of vision between adjacent lenses.

Thus the image produced would be “aliased”, or have missing information.

To counter this, the team developed an “adaptive lens array,” made from elastic material, where each lens in the sheet camera can vary its focal length as the local curvature of the sheet is manipulated, eliminating the problem of gaps in the resulting image.

"The adaptive lens array we have developed is an important step towards making the concept of flexible sheet cameras viable," said Dr. Nayar in a press release. "The next step will be to develop large-format detector arrays to go with the deformable lens array. The amalgamation of the two technologies will lay the foundation for a new class of cameras that expand the range of applications that benefit from imaging."

One of the avenues scientists plan to explore further is how such a system would work if attached to something with more complex movements and deformations than a simple sheet – something like a human body.

For example, researchers at Tokyo University of Tokyo have developed "e-skin," or "electronic skin" which is ultra thin, ultra flexible, and constructed of layers of silicon oxynitrite and parylene. These layers envelop 3-millimeter-thick electronic devices called Polymer Light Emitting Diodes (PLEDs) and Organic Photodetectors (OPDs), protecting them from from air and water damage.

Each tiny diode functions as a single pixel. When multiple diodes in the electronic skin light up together, they create a display that can include numbers or images. The result? A smartwatch or fitness display that sticks to your skin.

Another example of thin tech interacting with the human body, "organs on chips," are slim, see-through microchips that mimic the functions of human organs, developed last year by Harvard University.

These flexible transparent chips hold the promise of allowing scientists to observe the action of drugs on various human organs in a far more intimate way than currently possible – as well as offering the possibility of eliminating animal testing.

The opportunities and applications for ever-shrinking technology continues, says the Monash Centre for Atomically Thin Materials, including “electrical and thermal conduction, mechanical reinforcement of composites, membranes and filters, battery electrodes, [and] biocompatible materials.”

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