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December 3, 2004 — A French startup company is making waves in the optical lens business. Varioptics Company is making variable-focus liquid microlenses from small droplets of oil and water. The tiny zoom lens will be used in camera phones, endoscopes, automobile safety cameras and other applications.
This new lens concept is a product of the rising demand for smaller lenses that can zoom and macro focus in mobile camera phones. The Varioptics lens can meet that need; it is 8mm in diameter and 2mm thick. The lens works by putting a drop of oil and a drop of water between two thin glass plates in a cone-shaped structure. The liquid is surrounded by an electric ring, which can emit voltage into the liquid. Since the water is conductive and the oil is not, only the water will bend; this creates a lens shape. The amount of voltage flowing in the surrounding ring controls the angle that the water will bend; more voltage will cause the oil to become convex, creating a zoom lens. Because the droplets of liquid are so tiny, shaking the lens will not cause one of those fifth-grade oil-and-water science experiments. Varioptics has created a 3x optical zoom lens with this technique and hopes to create even longer zoom ranges.
The oil and water lens is enticing to manufacturers because of its low-cost construction, low power consumption and durability. Because the lens does not have moving parts in it, there is less of a chance that the lens will break. The tiny lens can also shoot in macro mode, a feat most camera phones currently on the market cannot duplicate. And because of the speed at which water reacts to the electric current, the microlens can focus quickly. Samsung Electro-Mechanics saw the potential of this lens for its camera phones and signed a non-exclusive license for rights to manufacture and sell the lenses. The deal was signed in June 2004 and the camera phones will reach shelves around next Christmas.
Varioptics received the Golden Photon Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year, in part because of its liquid lenses.