The smartphone camera of the future may not have a lens at all

Computing images without optical lenses could enable SLR-quality photos in a component small enough for smartphones

A digital camera sensor.

A digital camera sensor. Some day cameras may no longer need optical lenses to capture images. (Shaun Pimlott/Getty)

One category of gadgets that has resisted the price-performance shift of digital electronics is cameras. Whether it’s called Moore’s Law or the law of accelerating returns or whatever, this shift has resulted in virtually all electronics getting better and cheaper at the same time. But full single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras remain expensive while even small smartphone cameras appear to have hit their limits.

That could soon change, thanks to the recent invention of so-called lensless cameras.

David Stork and Patrick Gill, researchers at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Rambus Labs, last year published a paper detailing their invention, which uses a computer chip embedded in a piece of glass to capture images.

The process is very different from a traditional camera because it doesn’t use a curved piece of glass—otherwise known as a lens—to capture images. Instead, a sensor captures spiral-like patterns that are then interpreted by a processor. explains it thusly:

Instead of a lens, a pattern is etched into the glass above the chip — the imager reads the light that is received, processes it using an algorithm developed by Rambus and converts it into a recognizable image. What’s amazing is that the etched pattern on the glass and the chip are both roughly the size of a period at the end of a sentence.

Here’s a video from Rambus explaining the finer points:

The upside of such tiny cameras is huge. Smartphone cameras have reached their upper quality limit while SLRs remain expensive because of heavy, curved-glass lenses. Tiny, digitally-driven lenses that don’t require costly glass means cameras of all sorts will eventually join the same price-performance trend that leads to just about all electronics getting better and cheaper.

Rambus is pitching these lensless cameras as a way of equipping the emerging internet of things with tiny, inexpensive sensors. The possibilities there are endless too, but there are also potential privacy drawbacks to having tiny, invisible-to-the-eye cameras embedded in everything around us.

The other downside to Rambus’ lensless camera so far is resolution. At this point, images are blurry and only 128 by 128 pixels. But, because it’s digital technology that’s involved, that resolution is sure to increase quickly, especially given the fact that several other groups of researchers are working on similar efforts.

Smartphones killed the point-and-shoot camera—this is a technology that could some day kill SLRs.