Future Technologies That Will Improve Cameras

Three of the things we, photographers, complain about on a regular basis, re: more powerful and longer-lasting batteries, faster memory storage, smaller and lighter lenses, are the subject of active research and there are promising breakthroughs to report.

Lithium-air batteries, Phase-change memory chips and Meta-lenses may break through the limitations imposed by current technologies. Researchers at MIT, Stanford and Harvard are working on new technologies that may well one day power our cameras, smartphones and cars. Not only are the products spawned by these new technologies better, but they may also be easier and cheaper to manufacture, thus assuring quick adoption.

Lithium-air Batteries
Tesla has made tremendous progress in the development of Lithium-ion batteries that power their cars and soon our homes. Of course, Li-ion batteries also power our digital cameras and, though they are adequate in DSLRs, they don’t last long enough in mirrorless cameras that consume lots of power keeping their LCD display and electronic viewfinder on.

Enter the Lithium-air battery which, in theory, can hold more than four times the energy per kilogram of lithium-ion batteries. So far, manufacturing a lithium-air battery for practical applications has proven challenging. However, a new design process has been submitted by Dr. Ju Li of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that overcomes existing problems. While past claims of practical lithium-air batteries have been met with scepticism, Dr Li’s design have been positively accepted by colleagues.

Dr Li hopes to convert his prototype to real products within a year. He and his team have already filed a patent and have begun talking with interested manufacturers.


Phase-change Memory Storage
Today’s memory chips are commonly based on silicon technologies and we continue to cram ever more megabytes (gigabytes?) into them. Typically, in our cameras, there are two types. The faster, but volatile, RAM (Random Access Memory) is used to perform rapid computations, such as determining correct exposure and focus, or used as buffer when shooting a number of burst frames. When all the computations have been done and resulted into a photo, we then store the latter as zeroes and ones onto permanent memory cards. Writing to memory cards can be notoriously slow, especially if you have taken a number of continuous shots.

Now a group of researchers at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) are working on a new class of semiconductor materials that store data permanently while allowing operations to occur up to a thousand times faster than today’s memory devices. What more, the new approach may also be more energy efficient.

This Phase-change memory has a flexible atomic structure, exists in two different atomic structures, each of which has a different electronic state. A crystalline atomic structure permits the flow of electrons (and thus computations), while an amorphous structure inhibits electron flows (and hence, permanent storage).

Phase-change materials can be transformed from zero to one, and vice versa, by a picosecond excitation (roughly the time it takes for a beam of light, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, to pass through the distance of two sheets of paper). This allows them to store data permanently as well as perform computations many times faster than silicon RAM. Phase-change technology also has the potential to pack more data in less space.

Though much work remains to turn this discovery into functioning memory systems, Phase-change technology has the potential to revolutionize data storage.


Here Come The Metalenses
The lenses in the cameras of the future may not be made of glass. After all, glass is not the only material that bends light, bringing it to a focus on a camera’s digital sensor. A meta-lens uses tiny towers of Titanium dioxide (TiO2) arranged in different patterns to focus light. Different patterns focus different colors of light.

The TiO2 blocks are only about 600nm long and can achieve the same resolution and magnification as optical lenses that are 5 to 6cm in length. These meta-lenses can be manufactured using relatively cheap silicon chip manufacturing processes versus the expensive lens grinding and polishing required to obtain the exacting standards required in producing high quality optical lenses.

The video below explains how a meta-lens works, taking as an example a microscope lens. But a lens is a lens, and a breakthrough in one use will quickly translate into other uses in your smartphone, cameras, etc.

A camera without optical lenses? Truly, the cameras our children and grandchildren will be using might not be anything their parents use today, giving the adage “This is not your father’s camera” a whole new meaning.