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"Flat Lensing" -- The Discovery Files

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How thin can a camera be? Very, say Rice University researchers who have developed patented prototypes of their technological breakthrough. FlatCam, invented by the Rice labs of electrical and computer engineers, is little more than a thin sensor chip with a mask that replaces lenses in a traditional camera.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Flat is where it's at.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files from the National Science Foundation.

No lenses.  Thinner than a dime.  Flexible and cheap to make.  Computer engineers at Rice University have produced a patented prototype of a camera that is basically no more than a sensor chip with a mask that replaces traditional lenses.  As cameras have gotten smaller, their light sensors have shrunk as well.  Less surface area equals less light collected.  But the ultra-thin "flatcam" sensor collects light on par with its larger, thicker cousins.

Flatcams could be foldable, wearable, disposable.  Imagine a camera on your credit card, or wallpaper that's a camera. Small as they are, they are still lenses in our smartphone cameras. That raises the price.  Flatcam technology can be fabricated with the precision and speed of microchips and their low cost. 

Flatcam shares its heritage with lens-less pinhole cameras, but instead of a single hole, it features a mask of many apertures.  Each aperture allows a different set of light data to reach the sensor--data sophisticated computer algorithms then convert to images and videos. 

We could see flatcams used for everything from security to disaster relief.

In the world of flat, soda, tires, and singing--bad.

Flat cameras--good.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation.  Learn more at

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