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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13 Comments

1. drunkenjay

Posts: 1664; Member since: Feb 11, 2013

Very good informative article.

4. umaru-chan

Posts: 358; Member since: Apr 27, 2017

Yes, very good article. Everyone knows that Samsung desperately needs to up their camera game. Their camera performance is quite pathetic as it is recently demonstrated by PA's recent blind camera test. Maybe this revolutionary hardware equipment can finally help them overcome their software weaknesses. But I must say losing to even one plus phone is just pathetic. Shame for Samsung, their note 10 phones and their diehard fannys who always crowned the note line before they are even released. LOL.

13. oldskool50

Posts: 1491; Member since: Mar 29, 2019

Funny you atatcking Samsung. But yet Samsung cameras have been the best over everyonefor several years until the first pixel. And even then, the Samsung was overall more consistent and better. Especially over Apple. But even though both company's need to work, you only picked Samsung. That shows right there how you're such a troglodyte, and you're biased an nothign but a troll.

15. Fred3

Posts: 517; Member since: Jan 16, 2018

@Brewski That was a good camera test but how the percentages of the votes was tallied, I wouldn't necessarily go off that. Meaning if 100 people vote for one and none for the other but if the others won by 5 votes on the rest then they could still lose just because how many people liked 1 picture other than how many more pictures had 1st or 2nd best looking picture. So no, don't say what phone haves the best camera just cause of how one web site operates their voting system lol.

2. User123456789

Posts: 903; Member since: Feb 22, 2019

There is a big problem. The module used by cellphones usually have between 5 - 7 lens elements in a tiny space, something like 3-4 mm. They are almost flat. Bigger sensor like 1/1.7" or even the upcoming isocell 1/.33" use bigger lenses, they are also thicker. There wont be space enough between them to shapeshift. Just look at fixed FL lenses of APSC and FF. Even those with same FL of smartphones have lens module of few inches.

3. User123456789

Posts: 903; Member since: Feb 22, 2019

Another issue is the use of organic component. If it is organic, it has expiration date.

6. bucknassty

Posts: 1335; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

how long do you think a viable usage time is? 4 years.... i think that would be nice... but you also have to have to take in effect all outside elements how does temp affect it... and damage

9. TBomb

Posts: 1460; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

Agree that temp and dmg will probably affect it. we could be wrong though, or there's a way to work with the temp changes. Damage is a different story though... if it's damaged, can you expect it to still work? Just like anything else in the world including the human body which can repair itself... it is "damaged" and we can't expect it to work flawlessly.

12. Rampage_Taco

Posts: 1057; Member since: Jan 17, 2017

Also, would usage time be effective by the users habits? As in someone who is constantly snapping photos for social media vs someone who may pull open the Camera every now and again

10. tokuzumi

Posts: 1895; Member since: Aug 27, 2009

I'd definitely like to see a proof of concept for this feature. A cellphone camera is no match for a dedicated camera with true optical zoom.

11. HarysViewty

Posts: 62; Member since: Apr 04, 2015

Traditional lenses are made from plastic Only LG devices have glass lens Lens cover is not camera lens Actually LG already made adaptive flexible lens (for wide angle selfie and ir sensor, hybrid). Phonearena wrote it, LG G6 era Adaptive lenses reminds me of LG 16microlens moving camera design

16. TerryD

Posts: 546; Member since: May 09, 2017

How is the fluid contained? Will gravity, vibrations or bumps affect the fluid and dis-locate it?

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