The transparent silicon wafer is smaller than a pencil’s eraser tip and as thin as a sheet of paper. But the LensVector autofocus camera lens — the world’s tiniest — has big prospects. And it may soon turn the cellular-phone industry on its ear.
Developed by Tigran Galstian, a physics and engineering professor who works out of the Centre for Optics, Photonics and Laser Technology at Université Laval, the lens is designed for miniature cameras used in cellphones, smartphones, laptop computers and other mobile devices. Unlike conventional mechanical autofocus units, which move back and forth to bring objects into focus, the LensVector lens has no moving parts, does not require a motor and, at 4.5 millimetres square and less than 0.5 millimetre thick, is a fraction of the size. It is also cheaper to produce, consumes less power, makes no noise (which is ideal for video cameras) and is less likely to break.
“The architecture of the lens itself is innovative,” explains Galstian, “so that it is truly manufacturable. It can be reproduced consistently and repeatedly without compromising on high performance.”
Galstian, a native of Armenia who studied in Moscow and France before immigrating to Quebec in 1995, calls his technology a “tunable liquid crystal lens.” A liquid crystal cell is transformed into a variable-focus lens by applying a small electrical charge to rearrange molecules within the cell. This, in turn, changes the refraction of light that passes through the component, adjusting the focal length from infinity to 10 centimetres. The technology promises to dramatically improve the quality of photos taken with cellphones and other mobile devices, many of which do not produce clear images at short distances.
LensVector, Inc., based in California’s Silicon Valley, was co-founded in 2006 by Galstian and high-tech entrepreneurs Derek Proudian and Thomas Killick. The company has secured more than $50 million in financing from investors such as Samsung, Kodak and Menlo Ventures to take the technology from the lab to the assembly line. The lens is currently being tested by several companies and is expected to be available in consumer products in the second half of this year, says Proudian, LensVector’s CEO.
The autofocus lens, says Proudian, has the makings to revolutionize the camera-phone industry. “From the perspectives of size, scalability, performance and reliability,” he explains, “it offers advantages as a solid-state solution versus the current mechanical approaches.”
The lens’s potential market is huge. Industry analysts predict that two billion micro-cameras in cellphones, laptops and other electronic devices will be shipped by 2012 — up from the current one billion. In 2009, about 30 percent of mobile phone cameras had an autofocus function, and that percentage is expected to more than double over the next few years.
“We believe that autofocus will become a standard feature,” says Galstian. “The number of cellphone cameras with autofocus will probably top one billion within a couple of years. And that’s just cellphones, not to mention laptop computers and other applications that may become even more important. The possibilities are endless if, of course, we have the resources to adapt the technology.”
Galstian and his researchers at Laval had little idea of those possibilities when they started tinkering with the technology just 10 years ago. They initially set out to improve liquid crystal displays in televisions but, in the process, discovered that similar systems and materials could be used to build an adjustable lens.
Galstian and colleague Vladimir Presnyakov published their findings in the Journal of Applied Physics in 2005. A note about their research in an on-line publication caught the attention of Killick, a director of business development in the camera-phone industry in Silicon Valley. At the time, he was exploring different kinds of autofocus mechanisms. He flew to Québec and met with Galstian, and in 2006, they formed LensVector with Proudian, who has more than 20 years of expertise in high-tech finance, marketing and engineering. LensVector obtained a patent licence for the autofocus-lens technology from Université Laval that same year.
The start-up is based in Mountain View, Calif., where Galstian has access to vital intellectual resources but its research and development arm has remained at Laval. As LensVector’s chief technology officer, Galstian manages a team of about 15 researchers at TLCL Recherche Optique, a small campus-based company he founded.
With the promise of a significant commercial breakthrough on the horizon, Galstian might be forgiven for contemplating early retirement. But he is “keeping both feet on the ground,” he says, with his current research on liquid crystal displays and a keen interest in biomedical projects. “My life will not change, at least for now,” he reflects. “The university environment is the best place for me, because it allows me to satisfy my curiosity and to share my passion with students.”