Curved sensors are getting closer to reality thanks to new Microsoft research

1191085 autosave v1 curvedsensor
Optical Society of America Journal

Curved camera sensors are poised to offer better low-light performance and enhanced image quality — but manufacturing challenges have prevented the new tech from actually coming to market. A team of researchers from Microsoft, however, may have found a solution. The group recently published its work in the Optical Society of America Journal, detailing a new process for designing curved sensors that overcomes several obstacles, including expense and performance.

Earlier studies showed that using a curved sensor could reduce the weight of the camera and lens by 37 times, the researchers wrote, but in order to achieve a higher-quality image than current flat sensors, that curve had to match the field of view created by the lens. Creating a highly curved sensor, however, involved deforming the material into a curve, which stretches the pixels and doesn’t allow for a high resolution output — or breaks the sensor entirely.

The Microsoft team instead developed a silicon sensor with flexible die edges, allowing the sensor to curve more without the pixel stretch. By placing the sensor on custom molds and slowly stretching the sensor, the group’s attempts resulted in a larger curve without breaking the sensor during the bending process. The group tested the process on a number of different sensor sizes, including a camera with an f/1.2 lens that had twice the resolution of a traditional DSLR.

The research brings the idea of a curved sensor closer to reality by navigating through manufacturing pitfalls. The group says that the curved sensors are likely still a ways from mass production, but plans to continue the research already underway, including infrared variations.

The curved sensors could potentially be found inside future DSLRs, however, they require a completely different lens design, making it more likely that the tech will find its way inside cameras with fixed lenses first, such as in smartphone cameras.