Technology 3 min read

A Portable Miniature Polarization Camera is Here

Screen grab from 
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences YouTube Channel

Screen grab from Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences YouTube Channel

We, humans, are able to sense some of the information contained in light, but not all of it. While we can see color (wavelength) and brightness (amplitude), polarization information is invisible to our eyes.

However, some insect species with compound eyes, like the praying mantis, can sense polarized light, so we can only wonder at how different is the world they see compared to ours.

If we lack the natural ability to perceive polarization information, we can think of an artificial way, like a polarization camera.

Currently, there are already some polarization cameras available, but these devices are expensive and bulky, and the scope of their applications are very limited.

The human eye has three color receptors, but the mantis shrimp—sea creature resembling both, shrimps and the praying mantis—has 16 receptors with 6 polarization channels to boot.

In 2017, a group of researchers designed a polarization camera that mimics the mantis shrimp’s well-developed visual system.

Now, scientists at Harvard University announced a breakthrough in polarization imaging with their new tiny camera that unlocks the unseen world of polarized light.

Seeing the Invisible With Harvard’s Polarization Camera

In 1935, The New York Times described the experience of seeing the first full-length movie to use Technicolor’s 3-strip color process as “glimpsing a strange, beautiful, and unexpected new world.”

Technicolor technology, which changed the way people perceive the world around them, was revolutionary at the time.

Engineers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have announced a “new precipice – this one, offering views of a polarized world.”

They have created a highly compact polarization camera the size of a thumb that could serve a wide array of applications such as machine vision and robotics, autonomous cars, aerospace industry, security, and atmospheric chemistry to name a few.

The team at the Capasso Lab used nanostructures, called metasurfaces, which interact with light at wavelength size scales. No need for taking several pictures, for each polarization direction, the camera can image polarized light in a single shot.

Just 2 centimeters in length, this tiny camera is highly compact with no costly moving parts and can fit into different imaging systems like cellphone cameras.

Senior author of the paper Federico Capasso, a professor of applied physics and senior research fellow in electrical engineering at SEAS explains:

“This research is game-changing for imaging. Most cameras can typically only detect the intensity and color of light but can’t see polarization. This camera is a new eye on reality, allowing us to reveal how light is reflected and transmitted by the world around us.”

The research paper, “Matrix Fourier optics enables a compact full-Stokes polarization camera,” is published in Science.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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