Curved sensors won't be just for smartphones, full-frame Nikon patent suggests

nikon curved sensor lens patent 12257500 ml
Adrian Hancu / 123RF

Curved camera sensors could mean lighter lenses and sharper images — and a new patent suggests Nikon is looking to bring the tech into a pro-level model. The patent, filed in Japan, P2017-125904A, details a 35mm lens, but that lens is designed to work on a full-frame curved sensor.

The patent says that the 35 mm f/2.0 lens is designed to focus an image on a curved sensor. Whether that lens is designed for a DSLR, mirrorless or fixed lens camera — or whether Nikon has even decided which — isn’t clear. While the patent has fans wondering if Nikon’s upcoming mirrorless camera has a curved sensor, it’s unclear how close the technology is to actually becoming a physical consumer (or professional) product.

Several companies have been researching curved sensors for years. With the edges of the sensors curved, the idea is that lenses wouldn’t have to have so many optical components, making them smaller. The sensor type is also said to have edge-to-edge sharpness, as well as enhanced low light performance and no vignetting. Sony shared the first image from a curved sensor back in 2014, and while there have been multiple patents since, the sensor type hasn’t yet arrived into an actual consumer camera.

Curved sensors haven’t become a real thing outside of research laboratories for a number of different reasons. Focusing the image onto a curved surface instead of a flat one would require entirely new lenses. Curved sensors are also harder to manufacturer, because they tend to break during manufacturing, though recent Microsoft research has designed a new process for safely shaping the sensors.

Since Nikon’s patent joins a number of other patents and research on curved sensors, the new sensor style could be getting closer to reality, or at least closer than when Sony took the first curved sensor pictures three years ago.  Since the different design requires completely new lenses, Nikon’s patent for a full frame lens suggests that if (or when) the tech comes into existence, the new design won’t be just for smartphone cameras.

Like all patents, the existence of a patent doesn’t guarantee a real product, but it offers a glimpse into the company’s research and development.