Insect Eyes Inspire Wide View Camera with Zero Distortion
Insects like dragonflies, ants, and praying mantises are well-known for their bulging, compound eyes.
Scientists have long known that though insect eyes can neither focus nor move, they are capable of seeing remarkably wide fields with infinite depth of field.
Modern camera lenses that capture wide fields of view (such as fisheye lenses) invariably create distortion around the edges.
Mimicking the same functionality of insect eyes in cameras has been a dream for engineers.
A paper published in the journal Nature could take that dream a step closer to reality, ENN reports. A team of researchers from the University of Illinois, University of Colorado Boulder, and the Institute of High Performance Computing A*star in Singapore among others have built an experimental camera that can capture incredible wide angle images without distortion.
The scientists built the innovative camera by using stretchable electronics and a flexible sheet of microlenses, made with the same material as contact lenses. Using an electronic detector that can be curved in a hemispherical shape similar to that of the lens, the scientists were able to eliminate the distortion.
Distortion arises when a mismatch of light passing through the hemispherically curved lens surface is captured by the electronic detector’s flat surface. The discrepancy is most common in conventional wide-angle fisheye lenses.
Jianliang Xiao, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU-Boulder and co-lead author of the study, said
“The most important and most revolutionizing part of this camera is to bend electronics onto a curved surface. …Electronics are all made of silicon, mostly, and silicon is very brittle, so you can’t deform the silicon. Here, by using stretchable electronics we can deform the system; we can put it onto a curved surface.”
Scorpions, spiders, and centipedes also share a common trait with all insects: they have compound eyes with low resolution that are capable of large fields of view, high motion sensitivity, and infinite depth of field. Their compound eyes are made up of a collection of smaller eyes each with an independent corneal lens and crystalline cone which captures light from the lens. This collection of small eyes is called ommatidia. The number of ommatidia in insects’ eyes vary, ranging from around 100 in worker ants to around 28,000 in dragonflies.
The camera Xiao and his colleagues built mimicked the complex structure of ommatidia by arranging 180 miniature lenses backed with its own tiny electronic detector. Each lens-detector pair are integrated together while still flat and then formed into a hemispherical shape afterwards. The molded pair does not deform and the spaces between them can stretch, allowing for a 3D shape. Serpentine filament bridges attach the electronic detectors to the lens securely.
Each lens-detector pair translates to a single pixel in the image taken by the camera. The advantage of being able to move the electronic detector behind the lenses compared to a single detector far behind a single lens allows for a very short focal length and almost infinite depth of field.
While Xiao and colleagues’ work demonstrate the feasibility of elastic electronics as a foundation for hemispherical, distortion-free cameras, commercial production of the exceptional camera may be years away. Avid photography fans might still need to hold their breath for a while, but at least the dream of a wide angle, distortion free camera is a step closer to reality – thanks to biomimicry.
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