As impressive as the the cameras of our smartphones are fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of the lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips that part with a camera consisting of a single “metasurface” that could save valuable space and battery life in phones and other devices… and they’re about to ship it.
The concept is similar, but does not stem from the “metamaterials” that gave rise to flat beam forming radar and lidar. Lumotive and Echodyne. The idea is to take a complex 3D structure and accomplish what it does using a precisely designed “2D” surface – not really two-dimensional, of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.
In the case of a camera, the main components are of course a lens (these days there are usually several stacked), which correlates the light, and an image sensor, which detects and measures this light. The problem that cameras currently face, especially in smartphones, is that the lenses cannot be much smaller without seriously affecting the clarity of the image. Likewise, the sensors are almost at the limit of the amount of light they can work with. Therefore, most of the advancements in photography in recent years have been made on the computer side.
Using a designed surface that eliminates the need for complex optics and other camera systems has been a goal for years. In 2016, I wrote about a NASA project that was inspired by the eyes of moths to create a kind of 2D camera. It’s harder than it looks, though – usable footage has been generated in labs, but it’s not the kind of thing you bring to Apple or Samsung.
Metalenz aims to change that. The company’s technology is based on the work of Federico Capasso of Harvard, who has published for years on the science behind metasurfaces. Him and Rob Devlin, who did his PhD in the Capasso lab, co-founded the company to commercialize their efforts.
“The early demos were hugely ineffective,” Devlin said of the early entrants to the field. “You had light scattering everywhere, materials and processes weren’t standard, designs weren’t able to handle the demands that a real world throws at you. Creating one that works and posting on it is one thing, making $ 10 million and making sure they all do the same is another. “
Their breakthrough – if you can call it years of hard work and research – is the ability to not only make a metasurface camera that produces decent images, but to do so without any exotic components or manufacturing processes.
“We’re really using all of the standard semiconductor materials and processes here, the exact same equipment – but with lenses instead of electronics,” Devlin said. “We can already manufacture a million lenses per day with our foundry partners.”
The first challenge is more or less contained in the fact that the incoming light, without lenses to bend it and direct it, hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic fashion. Devlin’s doctoral work aimed to tame this chaos.
“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] the lens is controlled at the macro scale, you rely on the curvature to bend the light. You can’t do much with it, ”he explained. “But here you have features a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the target.”
These features, as you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like little cans of nanoscale Coke,” Devlin suggested. Like other metamaterials, these structures, much smaller than the wavelength of a visible or near infrared ray of light, manipulate radiation in ways that take a few years of study to understand.
The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and far less complexity than the compact camera stacks found in consumer and industrial cameras. To be clear, Metalenz isn’t looking to replace your iPhone’s main camera – for conventional photography purposes, the conventional lens and sensor are still the way to go. But there are other applications that play on the strengths of the chip-type lens.
Something like the FaceID assembly, for example, presents an opportunity. “This module is very complex for the cellphone world – it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” Devlin said. Likewise, the miniature lidar sensor.
At this scale, the priorities are different, and by subtracting the lens from the equation, the amount of light reaching the sensor is dramatically increased. This means that it can potentially be smaller in all dimensions while still performing better. and pulling less power.
Lest you think this is still a lab-related “wouldn’t it be nice if” device, Metalenz is well on its way to being commercially available. The $ 10 million Series A they just raised was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures and TDK Ventures, as well as Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures – many vendors.
Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz doesn’t start with a short series of storefront demo devices, but goes big.
“Because we use traditional manufacturing techniques, it allows us to evolve very quickly. We don’t build factories or foundries, we don’t have to lift hundreds of thousandths of an inch; we can use what’s already there, ”Devlin said. “But that means we have to look at high volume applications. We need the units to be in that tens of millions range for our founding partners to see that it makes sense. “
Although Devlin declined to be specific, he said their first partner was “active in 3D detection” and that a consumer device, although not a phone, would ship with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 – and later in 2022 would see a phone. -solution based shipping also.
In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a start-up that comes out of stealth and takes its turn A… it already has shipments planned in the tens of millions. The $ 10 million is not a bridge to business viability, but short-term cash to hire and cover the initial costs associated with such a serious business. Anyone on this investor list is unlikely to have serious doubts about the return on their investment.
3D detection is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex laboratory equipment to portable electronics that can be easily put into service is one, and improved bench-top versions of the tools with more light collecting capacity or faster operation in is another.
While a device you use may have a Metalenz component in it in a few years, chances are you won’t know – the phone maker will likely take all the credit for the improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nonetheless, it can show up in teardowns and schedules, at which point you’ll know this particular college spin-out has made its way into the big leagues.