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MIT created a metalens capable of focusing by applying heat

MIT created a metalens capable of focusing by applying heat

The future of focus systems

Today's focusing systems basically all work the same way. That is to say, there is a mechanical system that is capable of making small movements with great precision to achieve that the different elements that shape an objective make the object in front of you and in which you are fixating appear perfectly sharp both when taking a picture as when recording video. A micromechanical process that is not easy at all, even if for you it only involves pressing a simple button or turning an external ring.

That is the mechanical part, then there is how the data is interpreted by the camera to know exactly how or at what point to focus. That's where classic phase, contrast or hybrid detection systems come in. These you will already know how they work, but for a quick review, here is a brief summary:

  • Phase detection: makes use of a special light sensor that analyzes two sources that reach it separately. Thanks to this, it is able to detect light transitions and see where there is a significant contrast change. That generates a peak in each signal which is the one that then serves to unify with the second and result in the focused object
  • Contrast detection: this other system takes into account the idea that an image will be correctly focused when its contrast is higher and the edges are seen more clearly and precisely (they are more defined)
  • Hybrid approach: finally, this would be a combination of both systems

Well, what MIT is doing does not vary with these detection systems but with how the lens applies the changes so that the image is perfectly focused. Instead of a mechanical system what he uses is a thermal one that by applying heat it is able to change the qualities of the objective and indicate to it, within a safe range, in which point it has to focus.

It is not something easy to do, hence for the moment it is only an experiment or prototype with which they are investigating, but the material would be a modification of tellurium, Germanic like the one found in CDs plus selenium. With all this, the lens would be able to respond to this heat system and modify the focus distance.

Viable technology?

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Without any demonstration that can be seen beyond their own trials done by MIT the question is whether this is really a viable technology looking ahead or not and the answer is not easy.

Presumably, a development of this type faces challenges as if it is capable of offering the same performance as a mechanical system in terms of speed, reliability and also range to focus on both very close and distant objects.

Although the main challenge is to see how the climatic conditions of each of the situations in which a camera is used could affect it. Because it would not be the same in cold or tropical climates, although the use of microheaters would logically take all these things into account.

The truth is that according to MIT itself, one of the applications that this type of lens could have with heat-based focusing technology could be useful for thermal cameras or night vision equipment. That is, a solution for a specific use. Although who knows if other devices where there are small lenses could be used as well.


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