Start-up wants starring role in camera mechanics

Artificial Muscle hopes its electrically controlled elastic materials may remake the innards of your next camera.

MONTEREY, Calif.--A start-up called Artificial Muscle hopes its actuator technology will provide a cheaper, quieter, and lower-power alternative to the host of motors and other devices that control mechanical movements inside cameras.

An elastomer-based actuator in a 9.5mm housing. Artificial Muscle

The company's technology employs a particular variety of resilient substances called elastomers. This variety changes properties when a voltage is applied across them, growing softer or firmer. Artificial Muscle mounts a ring of the material to a central disk that's pushed by a spring; when the material relaxes, the spring pushes the central disk outward.

The distance the disk travels, or "throw," is as much as 300 microns, or 0.3 millimeters, for an actuator package 9.5mm across, or 250 microns for the company's new 8.5mm package. (These sizes are standardized by SMIA, the Standard Mobile Imaging Architecture, so suppliers and manufacturers have more sales options.)

A 300-micron throw might not sound like much distance, but it's enough to run a variety of camera mechanics, said Charlie Duncheon, executive vice president of sales and marketing, in a presentation here at the 6sight digital imaging conference Thursday.

"We are going to be starting in the camera actuator market," he said. Among the tasks that could use the technology: autofocus, image stabilization, aperture control, mechanical shutters, and optical zoom.

The actuator can respond quickly enough for image stabilization, since hand shake happens with vibrations at between about 5Hz and 20Hz. However, throw distance decreases with faster actuator movement: the travel drops to 90 microns at 20Hz and 20 microns at 100Hz, he said in an interview.

Artificial Muscle was founded in 2003, spun out of research center SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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