Sometimes it seems that smartphone manufacturers would like nothing more than to give us an utterly flat, two-dimensional handset. And while they continue to make stabs in that direction, right now we’re up against a wall where the components that make up our phones are themselves becoming the thinness-limiting factor – and for a lot of models, the biggest problem is the camera. Now, there’s definitely progress being made in slimming down camera modules – just look at the expected improvements with the GS7’s camera bump compared to that on the GS6 – but some in-development tech could have the potential to drastically speed up those efforts, allowing camera-makers to get rid of bulky lenses.
But don’t cameras fundamentally need lenses in order to capture light? Well, yes and no. You need a way to control the path light takes, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a capital-l lens.
Engineers have come up with a “FlatCam” system that instead acts more like an old-fashioned pinhole camera – and as opposed to employing a lens, it lets light through a tiny hole. Actually, millions of tiny holes, with a thin plastic sheet creating an array of pinhole apertures.
Then it’s a matter of using some software algorithms to process the data from all those little point of light, and you end up with a workable image. Admittedly, quality isn’t great right now (it’s been compared to early, traditional digital cameras), but there’s lots of room for improvement. And with smartphone space the big priority it is these days, we wouldn’t be surprised if camera companies put a lot of thought into improving upon this no-lens system to the point where it might be ready for commercial deployment.