Can a Camera Be Lensless? Introducing the Futuristic FlatCam

What would a camera without a lens look like? The answer, according to a team of researchers at Rice University, is literally anything. By ditching the bulky lens, cameras could be built to be flat, allowing them to be contorted or positioned in anything—they could be flexible, curved, or subtly placed inside other devices:

Leading the team behind this radical notion is Richard Baraniuk, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at Rice University. As he puts it:

“When you get right down to it, we’ve spent the last 400 years perfecting a single design for a camera. It consists of a sensor and a lens. We’re trying to change that in a radical way.”

His team’s goal is to challenge the very concept of three-dimensional cameras, turning them instead into tiny, flat objects the size of microchips. The lens would be replaced by a very thin mask layered on top of the sensor, then an algorithm that extracts the image from the masked image. Instead of one pinhole-esque opening, this model would offer literally a million tiny pinholes that are sorted out by a computer algorithm.

camera without a lens

FlatCam

The results aren’t very sharp yet, as you can tell, but the fact that they have anything at all is a testament to how futuristic the 21st century is becoming.

innovative camera style

an image taken with a FlatCam

For a more technical analysis, you can hear the team describe their million-pinhole concept on NPR’s All Things Considered here:

“These are early days. And there’s still a lot of work to be done to perfect the technologies and the techniques. But what the design offers is a completely new design space that we can work with to design exotic new kinds of cameras.”

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