Shapeshifting smartphone cameras may be the next big thing

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Shapeshifting smartphone cameras may be the next big thing
Over the past couple of years, we've been talking about how hardware innovation in smartphone cameras has taken a back seat in favor of new software developments. Despite small camera sensor sizes, limited by the slim profiles of modern phones and ever-increasing battery capacities, smartphone cameras have been able to deliver miraculously good results, almost exclusively thanks to improvements in how raw image and video data is processed by software.

However, during this time of amazing software developments, companies like Huawei kept pushing camera hardware innovations forward, albeit at a slower pace, by introducing larger sensors and impressive optical zoom solutions. In comparison, the likes of Samsung and Apple, who are considered leaders in their own market segments, have seemingly fallen behind in terms of bringing new camera innovations to the table. Recently, an infographic started doing rounds online, comparing camera sensors in Samsung and Huawei phones over the past couple of years. As you can see, while the sensors in Samsung phones have remained the same size since the release of the Galaxy S7 in 2016, Huawei has been upping its camera game the whole time.

And though Samsung may seem like it's got quite comfortable in its leading position in the premium Android market, hence less willing to introduce drastic new hardware innovations, next year's Samsung flagship models may actually usher in a radical new camera technology that could make smartphone cameras even more versatile, with quicker focus, and even smaller optical parts.

Shape-shifting smartphone cameras, almost two decades in the making



Samsung has been working with a company called Varioptic, since around 2005, on a liquid lens camera solution for smartphones. Actually, Varioptic is the company that created the this type of lens way back in 2002, but Samsung was evidently interested in implementing it in a smartphone 14 years ago.

Digging through news and press-releases from 2005, I stumbled across many reports that Samsung wanted to use a liquid lens to create a phone camera with optical zoom capabilities. At that time, motorized solutions were too big and too expensive for what Samsung wanted to achieve in mobile device, so Varioptic's liquid lens—which had no moving parts, and was small and very durable—seemed like the perfect vessel to carry out the company's vision.

Something went wrong, however—or it must have—because, according to an official press-release from that time, Samsung phones with liquid lens cameras were supposed to be "commercially available by the last quarter of [2005]."

But the technology wasn't just written off. On the contrary. In 2017, Varioptic became a part of Corning, the maker of your phone's Gorilla Glass, through an acquisition that included Varioptic and Invenios technologies for packaging and stabilizing liquid lenses. Coincidentally, Samsung has a strategic partnership with Corning.

Recent "leaks" about the Galaxy S11 mentioned that Samsung's next S-series flagship will bring something that's "never been seen before" in relation to the camera. Now, this may very well be in part your usual leaker mumbo-jumbo get-on-the-hype-train-thing, but considering Samsung's past relations with Varioptics and its current partnership with Corning, there may be something in the pipeline relating to liquid lenses on smartphones.

How do liquid lenses work?



Traditional camera lenses are are made from glass, while liquid lenses are, well... liquid. To be precise, they are composed of an optical liquid that is capable of changing its shape at a very rapid pace. The focal length of a glass lens is dependent on the material it's made of, and the radius of its curvature. The same holds true for liquid lenses, though they are capable of altering the radius of their curvature, thus changing their focal length at a whim. This shape-shifting is controlled electronically and can occur extremely fast. As in, milliseconds fast.

Imaging lenses are usually comprised of multiple optical elements, because a single optical lens can rarely provide sufficient resolving power. For this same reason, using a liquid lens by itself is not likely to be done on a smartphone. However, by introducing a liquid lens to a multi-element lens design, the speed and flexibility of the camera can be greatly improved. Having the ability to focus both up close and to optical infinity in milliseconds makes integrating liquid lenses an ideal choice for applications that require focusing at multiple distances where the objects are different sizes or are at different distances away from the lens.

And herein lies the "problem" that may have deterred Samsung from using liquid lenses back in 2005. On their own, liquid lenses may be very compact and extremely quick, but they have nowhere near the imaging performance of traditional, multi-element lenses. Combining the two can, potentially, lead to some interesting developments, but 14 years ago, this wasn't enough of an incentive. In 2020, however, the time may be ripe for the marriage between liquid and glass in smartphone cameras.

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