CHICAGO – Engineers in Illinois have invented a new kind of eye-like camera that avoids some basic limitations of ordinary cameras and could lead to a host of novel devices based on curved or flexible electronic components.

Reporting in Wednesday’s edition of the journal Nature, the team from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University drew inspiration from the curved retina of the mammalian eye, which has a simpler design than most man-made cameras. Instead of the rods and cones that detect light in an eye, the engineers made a curved array of tiny photodetectors and circuits.

That’s a harder feat than it sounds, experts say – until now, nearly all complex electronics have been etched on flat wafers.

“The whole technology is based on flat and rigid systems,” said Max Lagally, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The group led by University of Illinois engineering professor John Rogers solved the problem by placing the camera’s silicon components on an elastic flat surface that could then pop back into the shape of a hemisphere.

Using a curved detection surface avoids some of the image distortion and dimming in ordinary cameras, which use a set of lenses to project an image onto a flat surface, experts said. The new design could find uses in military surveillance or space missions, which often require small cameras with a wide field of view.

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