NU researchers develop new optical technology that can improve the quality of portable cameras

Wilson Chapman, Reporter

Instagram users kissed the Valencia filter goodbye and welcomed portrait mode with open arms. Now new photo-taking technology may revolutionize social media on Northwestern’s campus.

Northwestern researchers have developed small optical elements that could replace traditional refractive lenses and improve the quality of portable cameras. The lens was developed by The Odom Group, a lab group in the Graduate School lead by Weinberg Prof. Teri W. Odom. Their findings were published in the science journal ACS Nano March 21.

Postgraduate Jingtian Hu, the first author of the study, said the optical elements were developed using metal nanoparticles and a polymer. The nanoparticles were arranged as cylinders that direct light. The design was then topped with a layer of polymers, or plastic materials, that can be shifted into different patterns that alter the direction of the light, shifting the focus of the lens.

The final product developed is 100 times thinner than a human hair, which allows it to fit into very small equipment such as mobile phones. Hu said while other products exist that are capable of fitting into portable devices, the flexibility of the new optical elements allows for a greater degree of freedom and convenience in shooting images.

“Our lenses can be reconfigured into configurations that can give us a single focal point, and we can shift that focus point on the same piece of the lens,” Hu said. “We can also realize multiple focus points at the same time.”

Odom said this new type of lens is superior to regular refractive and diffractive ones, because most of these lenses only work with a specific wavelength of light and can only focus light on a single point. However, with this innovation, a new spectrum of these elements is accessible. By using a digital interface, such as a screen, to automatically adjust the polymer’s arrangement, the focus can be shifted with ease.

Odom said the development of these lenses has significant implications for digital video and imagery, because the technology’s small size means it can easily be used for devices such as iPhones and digital cameras. As such, the image quality of these devices can see significant improvement.

“You’re taking something that used to be very, very large, like (high quality) cameras, and now you can shrink them down into very small dimensions with these new types of lenses,” Odom said.

Communication sophomore Jackson Morgan [CQ][CQ] said he found the optical elements that the research described interesting, and this type of technology will be beneficial to future RTVF students should it become widely available. Specifically, Morgan said he thinks the ability to use higher-quality small cameras will make shoots easier and less taxing for student filmmakers working on campus.

“The ever evolving landscape of camera sensors will enable future filmmakers to work with more compact and powerful equipment,” Morgan said.

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NU researchers develop new optical technology that may one day replace traditional refractive lenses