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Liquid lenses for cameraphones: Zooming closer

Oil and water mix to create a new kind of lens that could vastly improve cameraphone performance.

In 2004, we covered Varioptic's liquid lens technology, reporting that by 2005 consumers could expect to see liquid lens cameraphones on store shelves. It's 2011, and we still don't have those products. But we're getting closer.

As a refresher, liquid lenses use two liquids--a refractive liquid (an oil), and a conductive, non-refractive liquid--together in a tiny sandwich, with the conductive liquid touching tiny electrodes. A current is applied to the electrodes to pull the liquid to them, and surface tension between the liquids changes the shape of the refractive material, and thus the optical characteristics of the lens package.

Now playing: Watch this: New technology from Optilux

Simple liquid lenses have variable focal length, so they can focus. If you put four electrodes around the circumference of the lens, you can also change the axis of the lens, enabling image stabilization. The liquid lenses are faster to focus than current-tech voice-coil focusing lenses, and they take a fraction of the power, too. To make a liquid lens zoomable, you need a stack of three liquid lens components; that's in development.

The technology is proven, and has been in industrial and security products for years, but the big manufacturer of liquid lenses, Varioptic, doesn't have the manufacturing capacity to turn out hundreds of millions of components required for the consumer cameraphone. In 2010, a new CEO of Varioptic, Hamid Farzaneh, sold the company to Parrot and spun out a new liquid lens company, Optilux, to focus on the consumer market.

Optilux is an American company; Varioptic and Parrot are both French.

The Optilux liquid lens. Optilux

Farzaneh has an exclusive license to use the Varioptic technology in consumer products, and funding to develop a manufacturing process to scale up to consumer product run-rates (Varioptic can ship about 100,000 lenses a month, a far cry from the millions that Farzaneh thinks the market will want). That's what he came in to talk to me about this week. He's hoping to set up both R&D and manufacturing in the U.S. Over time, as the new company digs into the consumer market, Optilux technology will diverge from Varioptic.

Farzaneh said that having manufacturing next door to U.S. engineers will keep development moving faster. It also increases the control the company can maintain of its intellectual property. Finally, he says, he needs an automated system for high-volume production, and automated plants are easier to set up next to U.S.-based engineers, compared with the current liquid lens construction techniques, which are based on hand-assembled lenses that benefit from lower (overseas) labor costs.

The timing of all this: We should, Farzaneh says, finally start seeing Optilux liquid lenses in cameras in 2013. These will be the auto-focusing and image-stabilized lenses. The zoom packages could show up in consumer products in 2014.