UW engineering students create smartphone camera zoom lens that keeps picture quality

A team of engineering students from University of Waterloo has invented a new type of smartphone camera lens called Scope, which will make zoomed in, blurry photos a thing of the past.

The invention has also won them an international award.

Although smartphones have revolutionized the way photographs are taken, they still struggle to create high quality images when the user zooms in on something. That’s because the cameras in smartphones are unable to replicate the physical movement of an adjustable lens as seen with digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. 

This physical manipulation lens still relies on 16th century Galilean optics, an archaic system that has not been reimagined — until now. Scope CEO Holden Beggs says the new technology the team has come up with has modernized the current lens system. It applies electrical fields to liquid crystals enabling a high quality zoomed image without any physical movement. 

“If you think about whenever you try to take a photo, especially when you want to zoom in and take a photo, when you pinch the zoom, that photo gets blurry, it gets pixilated; and it’s because all your phone is essentially doing is using software that just crops the photo, it’s not actually keeping that high quality,” Beggs told CBC News.

“What our technology means is you’ll be able to zoom to take consistently sharp photos, it means you’ll be able to take different kinds of photos … and you can do it without having a bunch of cameras on the back of your phone, just one that can do everything.”

Scope CEO Holden Beggs says the new technology has modernized the current lens system and applies electrical fields to liquid crystals enabling a high quality zoomed image without any physical movement. (Dyson Canada Ltd.)

‘Impressive invention’

Explaining how the Scope lens works, Beggs said when different fields are applied, the crystals reorient and change shape, mimicking a physical zoom system — a perfect integration and replacement of current smartphone lenses.

“It’s a great invention because it solves a problem that has really been plaguing optics and cameras,” he said.

UW’s engineering team surpassed more than 1,800 international applicants in 27 countries with their invention. (Dyson Canada Ltd.)

The students recently won the international runner up prize and $8,500 for the James Dyson Award (JDA), a global annual design competition to encourage students to engineer inventions to some of the world’s largest problems. 

UW’s engineering team beat out more than 1,800 international applicants in 27 countries with their invention.

Peter Gammack, Dyson’s vice president of new product innovation, called Scope “an impressive invention” in a release.

“Not only is it a low compact and cost-effective solution, it also has the potential to be used in a variety of product applications. I was also impressed that the team used simulation techniques in conjunction with practical experiments to develop the concept,” Gammack said.

Beggs said it will be a few years before the Scope lens is rolled out on smartphones.

“The smartphone cycle is quite long. A company like Apple for instance is working on a smartphone that is coming after the smartphone that is coming after the one coming out next,” he said.

“It’s a very long process to get technology to a smartphone.”

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