Researchers Create Electronic Lens That Works Better Than the Human Eye

A new development could soon transform the design of almost every optical instrument in use today, including cameras, eyeglasses and telescopes. Uniting new developments in artificial muscle and flat lens technologies, a team of scientists at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have made a new lens that works a lot like the human eye.

Not only is the device proficient of focusing in real-time thanks to an elastomer muscle, it features none of the bulk of a traditional spherical lens. It can even do some things the human eye cannot, including adjusting for astigmatism and image shift, two variables that lead to blurry vision.

All of this is thanks to a previous technology a team of some of the same scientists developed. The flat lens design this new artificial eye takes benefit of is called a metalens. It uses small nanostructures to focus light. In this way, it's able to focus the complete visible light spectrum at a single point. By contrast, traditional lenses use numerous elements to achieve the same feat, which is why they get so large.

Before this recent breakthrough, the SEAS team says they were only able to bbuilt metalenses that were "the size of a piece of glitter." By contrast, their recent invention is bigger at about one centimeter in diameter Larger, in this case, is better because it makes it more practical to use the technology in a host of modern applications. With cameras, for instance, a lens needs to be big enough to cover a sensor so that there's no vignetting.

As with any new technology, it'll likely be years before metalenses make their way to consumer devices. Though, their potential is evident. Combined with even smaller computer chips, something like virtual and augmented reality headsets could become small and comfortable enough where the technology becomes attractive to the average consumer.