What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?

What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?

Not so long ago, Xiaomi, rightly suspected by many of being A-branded, introduced a flagship with a flexible screen Mi MIX Fold. Interestingly, by the way, the word Fold has not become a brand for Samsung. Lenovo first unveiled its ThinkPad Fold laptop and now Xiaomi. Maybe in English, over time, the term Fold will simply become synonymous with flexible screen devices.

However, there is one unique feature in Mi Mix Fold. It is the first smartphone to use liquid lens technology in a camera. Actually, even last year there were rumors that Huawei is using this technology in its next flagship. Formally, in May 2020, a post appeared on Huawei’s page that the company was patenting the Liquid Lens Camera Module technology, with which it promised to touch the new heights of photography.

What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?
What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?

What are liquid lenses?

Technically speaking, liquid lenses are not a super-hot novelty. For the first time, they started talking en masse back in 2017. However, liquid lenses were used before in industrial equipment and special equipment. And in commercial photographic equipment, they have been used since 2002, when the Varioptic company appeared, just specializing in this type of lens (if we talk about the idea, it was even more so proposed at the end of the 19th century).

The main advantage of liquid lenses is super-fast autofocus. For example, a robot equipped with such lenses in production can instantly focus on objects that are at different distances or have different sizes. It has been possible to find examples of such robots involved in checking and sorting tablets in pharmaceuticals.

Liquid lenses are truly liquid. They are tiny cells filled with optical quality liquid. An example of such a fluid is an optical silicone elastomer.

What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?
This picture has nothing to do with cameras. Just a picture of what a similar optical quality silicone looks like.

A voltage is applied to the cell, under the influence of which it changes its shape. The process is called electrowetting. Focus change takes milliseconds.

What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?

To see what it looks like live, please watch Corning’s 30-second demo video. It shows how the droplet changes shape under the influence of stress. As you can see, liquid lenses are somewhat similar to the work of the human eye.

What is the advantage of liquid lenses?

First, instant autofocus is user-friendly.

In digital photography, liquid lenses are also used in cases where subjects must be super sharp while the background is blurred. Obviously, in smartphones, where portrait mode has been hugely popular for several years now, this will offer users the ability to take super sharp portraits.

Secondly, liquid lenses, in theory, can make it possible to create new modes for photography. For example, with instant autofocus, a smartphone can instantly take several frames with different focal lengths, thus creating a clear frame over the entire area. Moreover, it will take less than a second.

Thirdly, there are no mechanical parts in liquid lenses, therefore, nothing can be damaged, and the lens itself cannot break when dropped. At the same time, the lens is resistant to vibration. So even when shaken, the photos should come out crisp. This also includes the fact that liquid lenses are more energy efficient. And they can work at different temperatures (from -45 to +60).

Fourth, liquid lenses are both smaller and lighter than conventional lenses. So, in theory, we can hope that with the development of technology, we will never see mountain ranges like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. And the camera modules (at least for the flagships) will become flat again.

What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?

Fifth, a liquid lens is much more versatile in terms of focal lengths. It’s great for macro photography. Liquid lens cameras have long been used in medical technology. Now macro cameras on smartphones are limited to 5 megapixels, and the picture from them is unimportant. With the new technology, in theory, the smartphone will almost turn into an electron microscope.

What can Mi Mix Fold do?

Obviously, the Fold from Xiaomi is only the first swallow. The technology will reach its heyday in 3-4 years, when it becomes mass and fully mastered (in the smartphone market).

In fact, there is only one liquid lens in a smartphone – this is an 8 MP module. Mi Mix Fold confirms that liquid lenses can work at different focal lengths. For example, a liquid 8 MP module will work both as a macro camera (from 3 cm), and as a TV camera, giving 3x optical zoom. In theory, portrait photography should also reach a new level, but Xiaomi is silent.

What are liquid lenses in the new Xiaomi smartphone?

Unfortunately, that’s all for now. But in the future it will be possible to reduce the number of photomodules to 1-2 pieces, since each lens will be universal. It will be possible to really talk about liquid lenses, how they will be used in the main photomodule.

It is unlikely that we will see similar solutions from Samsung or Apple in the near future, as the companies prefer to take their time. But perhaps Huawei will still surprise you with something.

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