Liquid Lens: is this the next big innovation for smartphone cameras?

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It’s only been a few days since Xiaomi took the cover off its first foldable smartphone – the Mi Mix Fold. While it was mostly on the news that it was the company’s first foldable phone, the phone came with interesting camera technology. Liquid lens. In this article, we examine what this new lens technology really is, and speculate if we are on the cusp of a smartphone camera revolution supported by this new development.

Let’s dive right in without adding to the bush.

What is ‘Liquid Lens’ and how does it work?

In case we haven’t mentioned it before, the Mi Mix Fold is also notable for the fact that Xiaomi claims it is the world’s first smartphone with liquid lens technology. As the name suggests, the “liquid” in Liquid Lens indicates that it is a lens that is inherently flexible. In simpler terms, liquid lens technology takes inspiration from the human body and actually mimics the bionics of the human eye. The liquid lens is encapsulated in a transparent liquid that is itself surrounded by a film – in contrast to the rigid glass lenses that we are used to on modern smartphones.

In the press release announcing the Mi Mix Fold, Xiaomi explains:

The liquid lens uses the principle of bionics of the human eye and forms a lens-like structure with a transparent liquid that is wrapped in a film that is very different from conventional optical lenses. The radius of curvature of the spherical surface can be changed precisely thanks to a high-precision motor based on technology developed by Xiaomi itself, which enables 3x optical zoom, a telephoto lens of up to 30x and a minimum focus distance of 3 cm.

xiaomi mi mix fold event nextpit 3

Xiaomi’s Liquid Lens celebrated its debut on March 30th / © Xiaomi / Screenshot: NextPit

With Liquid Lens, Xiaomi ensures that only three camera lenses are needed in an array with four cameras, as a single lens can take on the role of two lenses by simply changing its shape or deforming. In this case, for example, the same lens gives the user the option of 3x zooming and 30x magnification when it acts as a microscope camera.

Xiaomi also claims that the technology is more durable than traditional lenses. What it doesn’t reveal, however, is the cost component. After all, there is a difference between implementing such a device in a device that costs over 1000 euros and implementing it in a device that costs 600 euros. However, it cannot be denied that Xiaomi was a pioneer in introducing high-end features to mid-range smartphones and they will somehow find a way to bring this technology to less expensive smartphones in the future.

Huawei and OnePlus are also experimenting with bionic lenses

If this technology could actually be produced and installed in the smartphone at comparatively low costs, other smartphone manufacturers should also register their interest in these liquid lenses. However, the technology itself is far from brand new. Corning, which we know mainly for its gorilla glass, has been making its Varioptic Liquid Lenses for the industrial sector for many years and celebrated the sale of two million of these lenses in 2019.

Corning also touts the benefits of liquid lenses, some of which include:

  • No moving parts, which significantly extends the life of the lens
  • Hundreds of millions of endurance cycles
  • Higher focusing speed
  • Robustness and unmatched vibration and mechanical shock resistance
  • Close focus ability
  • Energy efficient
  • Quiet operation

Now it’s just a matter of ensuring that this technology, which is already used in industry, is also used on our smartphones. There’s not much going on in that regard at the moment, but at least there are already rumors that Huawei might go for a liquid lens approach for its P50 Pro as well. A little over a year ago, we learned that Huawei had filed a patent for a lens based on the same technology.

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Huawei’s Liquid Lens patent was released last April! / © CNIPA

OnePlus is also promising exciting changes in this regard in the camera department. Shortly after announcing the Hasselblad partnership, which will first benefit the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro, the company spoke about upcoming innovations, including liquid lens technology.

“This was inspired by the human eye, which leads to the current name: Bionic Lens. This lens replaces the conventional coil motor for almost instantaneous autofocus under a millisecond, 5 to 10 times faster than the coil motor Focusing process when shrinking the front camera sensor. “

Will liquid lenses be the next big camera trend on smartphones?

With Xiaomi, OnePlus and Huawei, at least three companies have already switched to the liquid lens cart, and I would be very wrong if other manufacturers did not follow suit soon. Ultimately, this technology has several advantages: It would potentially eliminate optical image stabilizers and the ToF sensor, and if you could then save on a lens, too. In fact, the liquid lens would be a worthwhile alternative for reasons of space alone. Fewer moving parts mean less risk of errors and the lightning-fast focusing is certainly another argument.

The only thing you need to know is whether liquid lenses can actually be built inexpensively. It may be a little early to be so optimistic about the future of the liquid lens, but there is a lot to be said. But I don’t want to leave it in the air without you telling us what you think. So please take our survey and let us know in the comments if you think this technology will be more widespread or if you think this is a niche feature.

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