‘Grain of sand’ cameras born out of chance and creative freedom

A set of 3D-printed lenses that are smaller than a grain of sand but can mimic eagle-eye vision came about thanks to a chance discussion with a colleague and the freedom to pursue scientific creativity, according to its inventor.

Optics was always one of Professor Harald Giessen’s favourite scientific fields, a fact he attributes to the ability to create visual wonders. ‘It is always nice when you can see what you are doing with lasers and light, it’s just beautiful. Seeing the light beams and working with mirrors and lenses is something very hands-on and practical. The visual aspect is very pleasing.’

Prof. Giessen, a specialist in nano optics at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, hit the scientific headlines in February when, together with colleagues, he revealed a set of incredibly tiny 3D-printed camera lenses that mimic how an eagle sees the world. Companies eager to exploit the ability to capture detailed images from a distance are lining up at his door, from firms working on robots and automation to medical tech businesses.

But, as Prof. Giessen well knows, scientists can’t always control how their work is used. ‘Of course it gives the spies incredible abilities to spy even more on us,’ he said. ‘In the end it will probably end up in the hands of the bad guys. This is what I fear, but I think it will make a real difference in medical technology.’

What they’re all interested in is a 2 millimetre by 3 millimetre chip that contains four lenses, each of which is 100 micrometres wide, or about the size of a speck of dust. Combining the data from these lenses produces a picture that is high-resolution in the centre and less focused towards the edges, known as a foveated image…..more

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