Metalenz announced today that chip giant ST Micro’s latest product incorporates its metasurface technology that puts flat lenses in consumer products like smartphones, laptops, smart home devices, even cars.
“The meta-optics collect more light, provide multiple functions in a single layer, and enable new forms of sensing in smartphones and other devices, while taking up less space,” the company said in a statement. “Metalenz’s flat-lens technology replaces certain existing optics in ST’s FlightSense ToF modules, which serve applications such as smartphones, drones, robots, and vehicles. In these, ST has sold more than 1.7 billion units to date.”
Crucially, Metalenz’ tech is printed like computer chips in silicon wafers, which means mass production at very low cost.
“We use the exact same fabs that make electronics,” Metalenz CEO Rob Devlin told me in a phone conversation. “That’s why we can go from 0 to 100s of millions of devices on-market in very small time. On a single wafer we can print 5,000 to 10,000 lenses, so we can produce tens of thousands of wafers in a week or lens, and can get to a million in single day.”
I previously interviewed Devlin for the TechFirst podcast, where he describes the technology:
Some of the core benefits of the technology besides manufacturability are larger sensing surfaces that trap more light as well as offer multiple capabilities in a single layer.
From my February 2021 post at Forbes:
“They’re 100X thinner than standard smartphone camera lenses and simpler and cheaper to make. Plus, they capture the full electromagnetic spectrum — not just visible light — and have excellent 3D-sensing capabilities that could bring Lidar-based dimensional sensing functionality to all phones. Currently, that’s only available on high-end phones like Apple’s iPhone 12.”
Devlin says one meta-surface replaces 3-4 ordinary lenses while taking up less space. Plus, they’re simpler and cheaper and — I would guess — more resistant to shock and breakage. This is the first time they’re shipping in consumer products.
Typically they’ll be integrated into an optical sensing component, but they’re also ideal for 3D sensing, the company says. As such, they can be used as people counters in outdoor or indoor public spaces, smart doorbells, robotic vision and guidance systems, and other IoT applications.
The optics in a Metalenz component have passed compliance and regulatory testing for the automotive uses, Devlin told me. One potential use case is as part of a driver monitoring system to ensure awareness in smart assistive driving systems, or wellness in the case of a child left in a car.
“This is the first time out there for this technology,” Devlin says. “It’s a huge milestone … now even more complicated optical systems that have been locked away in labs we can enable at mobile price points for the first time.”
The ToF modules the meta-material lenses will be used in use time-of-flight sensing systems like LIDAR, which measure the time it takes for light to travel to an object and back to the sensor in order to enable mapping, sensing, and collision awareness.
ST Micro’s existing technology in this space is used to enable features like autofocus in smartphone cameras, presence detection, gesture recognition, and security features.
“The introduction of products embedding Metalenz’s game-changing metasurface optics now enables significant power efficiency, optical performance and module-size optimization that all bring benefit across consumer, industrial, and automotive markets,” Eric Aussedat, Executive Vice President and General Manager of ST’s Imaging Sub-Group said in a statement. “Initially targeting applications using near-infrared wavelengths, especially for 3D sensing, the products we’re introducing with Metalenz are perfectly suited for applications like face authentication, camera assist, consumer LIDAR, and AR/VR, where depth mapping is needed.”
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