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SALT LAKE CITY — A new innovation from the University of Utah may make the next generation of smartphone cameras take some of the best pictures ever.
Sometimes photos that are taken with a camera phone turn out dark and grainy. But new technology developed by a U. engineering scientist could help make those poor images a thing of the past.
Professor Rajesh Menon has created a new camera color filter that lets in three times more light than conventional filters, resulting in cleaner, more accurate pictures even when taken in low light. The new filter can be used for any kind of digital camera, but Menon is specifically targeting smartphone cameras. He, along with doctoral student Peng Wang, explained their research and the invention in the journal Optica.
"Overall, camera phones are very good, but they are not very good in low light," Menon said. "If you go out on a hike in the evening and take a picture of the sky you will see that it's very grainy. Low-light photography is not quite there and we are trying to fix that."
This is the last frontier of mobile photography, he said.
Traditional digital cameras use an electronic sensor that collects the light to make the picture, he explained. Over that sensor is a filter designed to allow in the three primary colors — red, blue and green. But in the process, natural light that hits the filter absorbs two thirds of the color spectrum in order to allow each of the three primary colors to travel through the filter.
"If you think about it, this is a very inefficient way to get color because you're absorbing two thirds of the light coming in," Menon said. "But in the new approach, we do not absorb the light so we can utilize 100 percent of the light."
He noted that the current method of light absorption has been prevalent in photography since the 1970s, so this new innovation is a significant advancement. The new process is done with a combination of software and hardware.
The new color filter that measures approximately one micron in thickness — 100 times thinner than a human hair — is a wafer of glass that has precisely-designed microscopic ridges etched on one side that bends the light as it passes through to create a series of color patterns or codes. Software then reads the codes to determine the colors.
"What that means for the average consumer or photographer is that you have a camera that can take much better images in low light conditions," Menon said. "It's a more accurate representation of color."
He noted the new filter also could be cheaper to implement in the manufacturing process because it is simpler to build compared to current filters.
Funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and NASA, the research will be used in space to photograph near-Earth objects such as asteroids, he said.
The U. has already patented the technology, and Menon has created a company to commercialize the new filter for use in smartphones. He is also negotiating with several electronics and camera companies to bring the technology to market.
He hopes to bring the first commercial products equipped with the filter to consumers in three years or so.
The new technology would not only greatly improve consumer smartphone cameras but could also be used in industrial applications, such as security cameras, drones or for self-driving cars to help them better decipher objects in the road at night, he said.
"In the future, you need to think about designing cameras not just for human beings but for software, algorithms and computers," Menon said. "Then the technology we are developing will make a huge impact."