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A new type of lens in smartphones – “Liquid Lens”. How it works

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Sometimes it is simply amazing what modern engineering solutions are capable of. One gets the feeling that a person is in control of everything, it is enough just to look for a different approach to the problem. Xiaomi has just fired again with new technology in its new foldable flagship Mi MIX Fold. And no, I’m not talking about the folding screen itself? here I should rather say thanks to Samsung, but about the telezoom camera, or rather about its lens. You may have missed this, but it uses a completely new generation of liquid optics that can change the curvature of the lens!

Today we will explain how it works and what should we expect from this technology in the future?

Is this a new revolution or another useless technology? After all, she could potentially change the entire mobile photo …

Focal length

You all know perfectly well that a smartphone camera, and any other camera, needs to be focused. Focus is very important, otherwise any photo will be blurry.

In addition to focusing, optical phenomena such as spherical and chromatographic aberrations also affect the quality of the resulting photograph. And all this must be taken into account and corrected in cameras, or rather in the optical system of their lenses.

In large cameras, this process is relatively straightforward. Large lenses allow many different lenses to be inserted there, and in addition to image correction, they allow you to play with the focal length, thereby allowing you to zoom in on the image. But this all makes the lenses big and heavy.

However, in the case of phone cameras, everything is much more complicated and is mainly due to the physical limitations in the size of the phones themselves. You can’t put the same telephoto lens in your pocket, but you still want to take pictures of cool shots.

The first phones did not know how to focus at all and the situation was saved only by a small aperture, which gave large values ​​of the depth of field. This made it possible not to think about focus, also because the resolution of the matrices was very small. I’m talking about the very 1.3 and 2 megapixel cameras that were in Siemens and Sony Ericsson. But people wanted to shoot more and more and with good quality. And demand, as you know, gives rise to supply.

With the increase in the resolution of the matrices, and in general the quality of mobile photography, there was nowhere without focus. And to focus, you need to move the lenses – after all, you can’t argue against the laws of physics.

And starting with the famous Nokia N90, it became possible to focus the image on the matrix.

It is clear that in phones, especially modern ones, there is a war for every millimeter and there is no way to insert huge lenses like in old Nokia or like in Samsung K-series.

Let’s remember the headphone jack in flagships, which fell victim to space saving. But then how to focus if there is no place, but you need to move?

Here the so-called Micro-Electromechanical systems, or simply Mems, come to the rescue.

Mems are very small and complex mechanical systems that allow you to perform various physical movements. These are such microscopic machines and they are used in a lot of places, in particular, in cameras of all modern phones, precisely in order to focus the image on the matrix! In addition, they are also engaged in optical stabilization of your phone’s camera. The options are different, and different manufacturers have their own, but the principle is the same when solid lenses are moved using memes.

Liquid lenses

And here we finally turn to “liquid” lenses, or rather it would be more correct to call them lenses with the ability to adjust the curvature.

Changing the curvature of the lens allows you to change the focal length. This is how our eye works, more precisely the lens of the eye, where its curvature changes, which allows us to focus on objects that are very close, and look far ahead!

Doctors have long learned to make artificial lenses of this type, just remember the operation to replace the lens of the eye. This gave the engineers the idea that something similar could be done, but for artificial eyes, that is, for our cameras! And they made them, even several types.

They can be conventionally divided into two large groups – mechanical and electrical lenses.

In fact, such a lens can completely change its curvature and change from concave to convex.

It is clear that Xiaomi only showed us a render, but we will have to figure it out on the basis of the little information that we have. We see that there is an inductor, and the lens itself, together with the frame, makes a vertical movement. This gives us the understanding that the curvature of the lens will occur mechanically, almost like in our eye!

Most mechanical lenses are warped by a small camera covered with a thin flexible membrane that can be several hundred nanometers thick! And the Membrane itself is bent precisely when the pressure in the chamber changes by means of external movement; here it is clearly provided by the coil, which we see in the video.

Reduced the volume by lowering the lens – it bent, increased – bent. Cool!

In principle, there are many different material options for these lenses, the main thing is that they are transparent, flexible and with a different refractive index. It can be a liquid or some kind of gas, or a combination of both. A good example is, of course, a pencil in a glass of water, or water in a plastic bag.

So what about the second way – electric?

There is a simple experiment: you take a hairbrush, rub it on a synthetic or woolen towel, in theory it can even be on the hair. Next, open the tap with water, but with a very thin and weak stream. So, when you bring the comb with sharp tips, then due to the charge of static electricity, which we received with the help of friction, the stream will bend.

This is due to the fact that there is an accumulated static charge, which creates a local electric field, which causes the water to be attracted.

The same will happen if you take a drop of water, place it on the surface and apply tension.

It turns out that due to the applied voltage, the ball of water seems to change its curvature, and this is exactly what we need in order to change the focal length!

This process is called electrowetting and was discovered back in 1875 by the French scientist Gabriel Lipman.

But if you just shove a drop of water into the camera of your smartphone, then most likely something inside will short-circuit. It turns out that the drop must be somehow fixed inside your device. For this, a small transparent container is created, into which water and oil of the same density are poured. Water and oil are necessary for the lens to be stable at any angle of use, because we have to take into account gravity and the fact that the lens can change.

As a result, when voltage is applied, the lens bends, and by changing the voltage itself, you can control it!

In general, you understand what we are driving at. In theory, there won’t be any more four or five cameras in smartphones, which are necessary for macro, zoom or width. In the future, it will all be just in one lens! Well, or a maximum of two. And this frees up a huge space inside our smartphones, that is, you can increase the size of the matrices themselves, well, or put a battery with a larger capacity. Will the minijack be returned, since the free space appears ?!

The most interesting thing is that such lenses are not a modern technology, they are already used in production, in professional equipment.

For example, barcode scanners have been using electrically adjustable liquid lenses for quite some time now. They need to quickly focus on barcodes from different distances. Liquid lenses make this easier because they can do it almost instantly.

We have already learned that the new Chinese flagships have a system with a mechanical curvature curvature, however, the ability to switch between just two modes is declared – threefold optical zoom and macro. That is, no, we did not get one single camera instead of all!

Of course, this is already impressive, although fine tuning is still far from it. And the reliability of the mechanism is not very clear, since there are many moving parts, and the membrane itself is very delicate. However, the company claims that the lens will work in temperatures from -40 to +60 degrees, which tells us that most likely it is not water that is used there, but a special transparent oil.

Another Chinese company, HUAWEI, by the way, also patented a similar technology at the end of 2020, and from the pictures we can understand that they also implement a mechanical approach. Looking forward to the new P50!

Output

Well, let’s summarize. The main advantage of the whole technology is, of course, the possibility of changing the focal length, and in the case of electric lenses, a very quick change, in just milliseconds, in addition, electric lenses are very reliable and energy efficient. But naturally there is also a fly in the ointment in this barrel of honey – the price and difficulties in production.

Camera modules are likely to become much more expensive, and it is not very clear what will happen to your new Mi MIX Fold if it is dropped on the tiled floor.

Apparently, Xiaomi themselves are not very confident in their own technology, since they have installed such a lens only on an auxiliary lens.

In any case, we think that this is a serious step for the industry, it remains only to hold it in our hands and understand what it is capable of … And then, we hope that Samsung and Apple will already catch up with their capabilities and we may see a small revolution in mobile photos.

In addition, it must be said that there are no moving parts in the liquid itself – that is, there is nothing to break there! Such a system is reliable and based on fundamental laws of physics and can serve for years! Well, of course, if your lens does not crack, then even a jar of rice will not help, for drying.

And finally – they are energy efficient and require a small amount of energy to refocus, and the lens itself is able to maintain its state!

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