First Flat Fisheye Lens

3D artistic illustration of the wide-field-of-view metalens capturing a 180° panorama of MIT’s Killian Court and producing a high-resolution monochromatic flat image. (Source: M. Shalaginov et al., MIT)

To capture panoramic views in a single shot, photo­graphers typically use fisheye lenses – ultra-wide-angle lenses made from multiple pieces of curved glass, which distort incoming light to produce wide, bubble-like images. Their spherical, multipiece design makes fisheye lenses inherently bulky and often costly to produce. Now engi­neers at MIT and the University of Massa­chusetts at Lowell have designed a wide-angle lens that is completely flat. It is the first flat fisheye lens to produce crisp, 180-degree pano­ramic images. The design is a type of metalens, a wafer-thin material patterned with micro­scopic features that work together to mani­pulate light in a specific way.

In this case, the new fisheye lens consists of a single flat, milli­meter-thin piece of glass covered on one side with tiny structures that precisely scatter incoming light to produce panoramic images, just as a conven­tional curved, multi­element fisheye lens assembly would. The lens works in the infrared part of the spectrum, but the researchers say it could be modified to capture images using visible light as well. The new design could poten­tially be adapted for a range of appli­cations, with thin, ultra-wide-angle lenses built directly into smartphones and laptops, rather than physically attached as bulky add-ons. The low-profile lenses might also be integrated into medical imaging devices such as endoscopes, as well as in virtual reality glasses, wearable elec­tronics, and other computer vision devices.

“This design comes as somewhat of a surprise, because some have thought it would be impossible to make a metalens with an ultra-wide-field view,” says Juejun Hu, associate professor in MIT’s Depart­ment of Materials Science and Engineering. “The fact that this can actually realize fisheye images is completely outside expec­tation. Metalenses, while still largely at an experimental stage, have the potential to significantly reshape the field of optics. Previously, scientists have designed metalenses that produce high-resolution and rela­tively wide-angle images of up to 60 degrees. To expand the field of view further would tradi­tionally require additional optical compo­nents to correct for aberrations, or blurriness – a workaround that would add bulk to a metalens design.

Hu and his colleagues instead came up with a simple design that does not require additional components and keeps a minimum element count. Their new metalens is a single trans­parent piece made from calcium fluoride with a thin film of lead telluride depo­sited on one side. The team then used lithographic techniques to carve a pattern of optical structures into the film. Each structure is shaped into one of several nanoscale geometries, such as a rectangular or a bone-shaped confi­guration, that refracts light in a specific way. For instance, light may take longer to scatter, or propagate off one shape versus another.

In conven­tional fisheye lenses, the curvature of the glass naturally creates a distribution of phase delays that ulti­mately produces a pano­ramic image. The team determined the corres­ponding pattern of meta-atoms and carved this pattern into the back side of the flat glass. ‘We’ve designed the back side structures in such a way that each part can produce a perfect focus,” Hu says. On the front side, the team placed an optical aperture, or opening for light.

“When light comes in through this aperture, it will refract at the first surface of the glass, and then will get angu­larly dispersed,” Shala­ginov explains. “The light will then hit different parts of the backside, from different and yet conti­nuous angles. As long as you design the back side properly, you can be sure to achieve high-quality imaging across the entire panoramic view.” In one demonstration, the new lens is tuned to operate in the mid-infrared region of the spectrum. The team used the imaging setup equipped with the metalens to snap pictures of a striped target. They then compared the quality of pictures taken at various angles across the scene, and found the new lens produced images of the stripes that were crisp and clear, even at the edges of the camera’s view, spanning nearly 180 degrees. “It shows we can achieve perfect imaging perfor­mance across almost the whole 180-degree view, using our methods,” Gu says.

In another study, the team designed the metalens to operate at a near-infrared wave­length using amorphous silicon nanoposts as the meta-atoms. They plugged the metalens into a simulation used to test imaging instru­ments. Next, they fed the simulation a scene of Paris, composed of black and white images stitched together to make a pano­ramic view. They then ran the simu­lation to see what kind of image the new lens would produce. “The key question was, does the lens cover the entire field of view? And we see that it captures every­thing across the panorama,” Gu says. “You can see buildings and people, and the reso­lution is very good, regardless of whether you’re looking at the center or the edges.”

The team says the new lens can be adapted to other wavelengths of light. To make a similar flat fisheye lens for visible light, for instance, Hu says the optical features may have to be made smaller than they are now, to better refract that particular range of wavelengths. The lens material would also have to change. But the general archi­tecture that the team has designed would remain the same.

The researchers are exploring appli­cations for their new lens, not just as compact fisheye cameras, but also as panoramic projectors, as well as depth sensors built directly into smartphones, laptops, and wearable devices. “Currently, all 3D sensors have a limited field of view, which is why when you put your face away from your smart­phone, it won’t recog­nize you,” Gu says. “What we have here is a new 3D sensor that enables panoramic depth profiling, which could be useful for consumer electronic devices.” (Source: MIT)

Reference: M. Y. Shalaginov et al.: Single-Element Diffraction-Limited Fisheye Metalens, Nano Lett., online 18 September 2020; DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.0c02783

Link: Photonic Materials, Dept. of Materials Science & Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA

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