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Smartphone companies have been, for a decade, trying to produce cheaper phones. New research indicates that this may be possible and may also improve smartphone photography.

Currently, while smartphone photography has improved by leaps and bounds, the appearance of ugly bumps on smartphone backs hasn't. However, new research on lenses may change this.

Researchers at the University of Utah Electrical and Computer Engineering Department have developed a new kind of optical lens, which is much thinner and lighter than the lens currently being used in smartphone cameras. The researchers claim that the system works better with night imaging. This development can not only make smartphone cameras better, it can even improve night vision cameras for military drones.

The work has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It is co-authored by students Monjurul Meem, Sourangsu Banerji, Apratim Majumdar and associate professors Rajesh Memon and Berardi Sensale Rodriguez and mathematics associate professor, Fernando Guevera Vasquez.

"Our lens is a hundred times lighter and a thousand times thinner, but the performance can be as good as conventional lenses," Menon stated to TechXplore.

While lenses currently used in smartphones and other equipment are a few millimetres thick, the newly devised lenses are just a few microns thick. It is just 20 times thicker than a human hair.

Also, the new lenses function differently than a conventional lens. In the conventional setup, light bounces off an object and a curved lens takes this light and bends it before it reaches the camera sensor, which processes it. The new lens has microstructures, which each bend the light in the direction of the sensor. The team has manufactured the lenses using a fabrication process for a new type of polymer, which lets them develop correct algorithms to calculate the geometry of these microstructures. They function as pixels function in a digital picture – they all together form a lens.

Instead of being curved like a traditional lens, the new lens is flat. This makes it better for thermal imaging and looking for heat signatures. Because of this, the new technology can be deployed easily in light military drones and make night flights for tracking forest fires or looking for victims in rescue missions easier.

Most importantly, the lens may drive the cost of equipment down as it is made out of plastic instead of glass.

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