As impressive as that Cameras in our smartphones are, they are fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips this part with a camera from a single “meta-surface” that could save valuable space and battery life in phones and other devices … and they are about to ship it.
The concept is similar to the “metamaterials” from which the flat beam-forming radar and lidar of Lumotive and Echodyne emerged, but is not derived from them. The idea is to use a complex 3D structure and get your work done with a precisely constructed “2D” surface – not two-dimensional of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.
In a camera, of course, the main components are a lens (there are usually several stacked up these days) that corrects the light and an image sensor that captures and measures that light. The problem that cameras are currently facing, especially with smartphones, is that the lenses cannot be made much smaller without seriously compromising the clarity of the image. Likewise, sensors are almost at the limit of how much light they can work with. Consequently, most of the photographic advances in recent years have been made on the computational side.
The use of a technical 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 took moth eyes inspired to create some kind of 2D camera. While it’s harder than it sounds – usable images were made in labs, it’s not the kind of thing you bring to Apple or Samsung.
Metalenz wants to change that. The company’s technology is based on the work of Frederico Capasso from Harvard, who has published about the science behind meta-surfaces for years. He and Rob Devlin, who did a PhD in Capasso’s laboratory, co-founded the company to commercialize its endeavors.
“Early demos were extremely inefficient,” Devlin said of the field’s early entrants. “You had light scattering everywhere, the materials and processes weren’t standardized, the designs weren’t able to meet the demands that a real world places on you. It’s one thing to make one that works and publish a paper on it. Making 10 million and making sure everyone is doing the same thing is another. “
Her breakthrough – if that’s what years of hard work and research can be called – is the ability to not only make a meta-surface camera that produces decent images, but also without any exotic components or manufacturing processes.
“We’re really using all of the standard semiconductor processes and materials here, exactly the same equipment – but with lenses instead of electronics,” said Devlin. “With our foundry partners, we can already manufacture a million lenses a day.”
The first challenge is more or less that incident light hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic manner without lenses for bending and straightening. Devlin’s own PhD was on how to contain this chaos.
“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] When the lens is controlled on the macro scale, rely on the curvature to bend the light. There’s only so much you can do with it, ”he explained. “But here you have features that are a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the lens.”
As you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, these features are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like tiny nanoscale Coke cans,” suggested Devlin. Like other metamaterials, these structures, which are much smaller than the wavelength of a visible or near infrared light beam, manipulate the radiation by means that take several years to understand.
The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and far less complexity than the compact stacks of cameras found in consumer and industrial devices. To be clear, Metalenz doesn’t want to replace your iPhone’s main camera. For traditional photography purposes, the traditional lens and sensor are still the way to go. However, there are other applications that show the strengths of the chip lens.
For example, something like the FaceID assembly presents an opportunity. “This module is very complex for the cell phone world – it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” said Devlin. Likewise the miniature lidar sensor.
On this scale the priorities are different, and subtracting the lens from the equation significantly increases the amount of light reaching the sensor. That said, it can potentially be smaller in every dimension while performing better at the same time and consume less electricity.
Lest you believe this is still a “wouldn’t it be nice if” device in the lab, Metalenz is well on its way to commercial availability. The $ 10 million Round A we just collected was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures, and TDK Ventures, and Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures – many suppliers there.
Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz doesn’t start out with a short run of boutique demo devices, but rather goes out the window.
“Because we use traditional manufacturing techniques, we can scale very quickly. We don’t build factories or foundries, we don’t have to raise hundreds of mils; We can use what is already there, ”said Devlin. “But it means we have to look at high volume applications. We need units that are in the tens of millions for our foundry partners to see that this makes sense. “
Although Devlin refused to be specific, he said that his first partner was “active in 3D recognition” and that a consumer device, although not a phone, will ship with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 – and later in 2022 will see a phone -based solution dispatch.
In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a startup that is just coming out of the hiding place and increasing its A round, shipments on the order of tens of millions are already planned. The $ 10 million is not a bridge to economic viability, but rather short-term cash to rent and cover the up-front costs associated with such a serious venture. It’s doubtful anyone on this list of investors has serious doubts about ROI.
3D sensing is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex laboratory equipment to wearable electronics that are easy to deploy is one, and improving bench-top versions of tools with more light-gathering ability or faster operation is another.
While a device you use might have a Metallenz component in it a few years from now, you probably won’t know – the phone maker will likely take credit for its improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nevertheless, it can appear in tear-offs and parts lists. By this point you know that this particular university spin-off made it to the big leagues.