High quality camera performance on mobile devices has proven to be one of the features that most end-users aim for. The importance of optical image quality improvement and the trend to have thinner and thinner smartphones have pushed manufacturers to increase the number of cameras per device in order to provide phones with better zoom, low-light exposure high-quality photography, and portraits, to name a few. But adding additional lenses to a miniaturized optical configuration and driving light-focusing with an electronic device is not as easy as it seems, particularly at small scales or in such confined spaces.

A schematic illustration of the Smartlens (Credit: Marc Montagut)

The integration of an adjustable-dynamic zoom lens in a mm-thick cell phone, in a miniaturized microscope, or at the remote end of a medical endoscope requires complex lenses that can handle the full optical spectrum and be reshaped electrically within milliseconds. Until now, a class of soft materials known as liquid crystal spatial light modulators has been the tool of choice for high-resolution light shaping, but their implementation has proven to have limits in terms of performance, bulkiness, and cost.

In a recent study, researchers demonstrated an adjustable technique to manipulate light without any mechanical movement. In this approach, coined Smartlens, a current is passed through a well-optimized micrometer-scale resistor, and the resistive heating locally changes the optical properties of the transparent polymer plate holding the resistor. In the same way that light passing through hot air bends to create illusions of distant lakes, this microscale hot region is able to deviate light. Within milliseconds, a simple slab of polymer can be turned into a lens and back. Small micrometer-scale Smartlenses heat up and cool down quickly and with minimal power consumption. They can even be fabricated in arrays, and as the authors show, several objects located at very different distances can be brought into focus within the same image by activating the Smartlenses located in front of each of them, even if the scene is in color.

By modelling the diffusion of heat and the propagation of light and using algorithms inspired by the laws of natural selection, the authors show they can go way beyond simple lenses — a properly engineered resistor can shape light with a very high level of control and achieve a wide variety of optical functions. For instance, if the right resistor is imprinted on it, a piece of polymer could be activated or deactivated at will to generate a given “freeform” and correct specific defects in our eyesight, or the aberrations of an optical instrument.

As IFCO Professor Romain Quidant points out, “remarkably, the Smartlens technology is cost effective and scalable, and has proven to have the potential to be applied to high-end technological systems as well as simple end-user-oriented imaging devices.” The results of this study open a new window for the development of low-cost, dynamically tunable devices that could have a high impact on current existing optical systems.

For more information, contact Romain Quidant at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..