Flexible lenses for printable, elastic cameras

The new lens array is made from silicone and automatically adjusts when curved. – Columbia Computer Vision Laboratory, 2016 / Columbia Engineering

Photographers may soon have a new toy. Engineers have built a flexible, bendable lens that can widen or shrink its field of view while keeping the image in focus.

Daniel Sims, Yonghao Yue and Shree Nayar from Colombia University in New York designed a "flex cam" with a lens array that passively adjusts itself as it's bent or twisted. Sims will present the work at the International Conference on Computational Photography at Northwestern University in Illinois next month.

"While the camera industry has made remarkable progress in shrinking the camera to a tiny device with ever increasing imaging quality, we are exploring a radically different approach to imaging," Nayar says.

The flex cam is a 33 x 33-pixel set of rubber lenses. Unlike rigid lenses that, when bent, would break or create gaps in images, this silicone lens array automatically adjusts focus as it curves.

While the prototype doesn't yet produce crystal-clear images, the trio envisions flexible cameras will one day be used as handheld devices, as well as printed and wrapped around lampposts and cars.


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