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Expanding camera lens combines insect, human vision

This hybrid approach could give smartphone cameras dynamic focus, and add depth to surgical imaging.

Hybrid lens
Ohio State University's Yi Zhao looks through a lens that can achieve wide-angle views with depth.
Jo McCulty/Ohio State University

Insects' hemispheric eyes have a wide field of view and high resolution. What if they could be combined with the focusing abilities humans enjoy?

This lens from Ohio State University is a hybrid of both. It has a wide field of view as well as depth of field, and could allow smartphones to take dSLR-level images and or surgeons to see inside their patients more clearly.

Presented earlier this year at an IEEE Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) conference, the prototype lens expands and contracts like the muscles of a human eye to change its shape and focus.

The compound lens is built from a flexible transparent polymer and has several dome-like bulbs on its surface. The whole thing is 0.19 inch across and filled with a gelatinous fluid. As the stuff is pumped in and out, parts expand or contract to vary the focus.

"Our eye can change focus. An insect eye is made of many small optical components that can't change focus but give a wide view. We can combine the two," inventor Yi Zhao, associate professor of biomedical engineering and ophthalmology, said in a release.

"What we get is a wide-angle lens with depth of field."

In an experiment, Zhao printed the letters in "Ohio" on small platforms of different heights. As each letter came into focus, the others became more or less blurry, demonstrating the focusing capabilities of the lens.

That could add dynamic focus to smartphone cameras, which have a fixed-focus lens, and improve pics that often lack depth.

When used with an electrically active polymer instead of gelatinous fluid, the lens would be more practical for applications such as laparoscopy, the use of thin camera tubes for medical diagnosis and surgery, giving surgeons more depth perception of tissue.

"With our lens, doctors could get the wide-angle view they need, and still be able to judge the distance between the lens and tissue. They could place instruments with more confidence, and remove a tumor more easily, for example," Zhao said.

Check out the hybrid lens in the vid below.

Now playing: Watch this: A hybrid insect-human camera lens