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Mixing oil and water--for cell phone lenses

French company Varioptic sells mobile phone camera modules whose lenses focus using oil, water, and electrical voltage.

A diagram of an oil-water lens Varioptic

A French company called Varioptic has announced two camera modules designed for mobile phones and built around an unusual liquid-lens design.

Varioptic's Arctic 416 lens combines electrically conducing water with nonconducting oil in a sealed package. Depending on how electrical voltage is applied to the package, the boundary between the oil and water changes geometry, which has the effect of focusing light passing through the liquids.

Using this "electrowetting" technology, Varioptic promises compact lenses that focus quickly, consume little power, don't need moving parts and have good transparency to visible light.

The first module, the AFCM MI285, combines the lens with a 2-megapixel sensor and autofocus technology. The module is manufactured by one of Varioptic's "leading Asian partners," the company said, and is a "stepping stone to the first camera phone using a liquid lens. We are already working with a number of handset companies to achieve this and should be announcing the first camera phone in the coming months."

In addition, Varioptic announced this week that a Chinese company, Sunny Optics, will use the Arctic 416 in another 2-megapixel camera module, the AFCM OV290.

Both modules will be demonstrated at the 3GSM show in Barcelona set for Monday through Thursday.