UK-based Plastic Logic and French company ISORG have created what the pair tout as a first in flexible printed electronics: a large area, conformable, organic image sensor printed on plastic. (Source: ISORG and Plastic Logic)
Excellent question, edsut. The answer to your first question, "doesn't every image sensor need a lens to properly focus in on some field of view?" is yes, but... A very accurate lens is only needed for taking pictures. We have been trained to think of image sensors as being used in cameras for increasingly sharp, accurate and realistic pictures, especially in machine vision. But in motion sensing, an image sensor such as the Kinect's doesn't have to "see" your gesture very well--it just has to sense the position and direction of your arm or other body movements, aided by a depth sensor for 3D and a tracking chip. Then the motion capture software takes over to decide what your gestures mean. The Kinect lens is small, round and unsophisticated. There's a good Wikipedia article on the subject. Regarding flexible lenses, the human eye has a flexible, curved lens, and some curved Fresnel lenses (used in lighthouses) are flexible. So are intra-ocular lenses implanted in the eye for correcting myopia.
Interesting, and note, I'm no optics expert, but doesn't every image sensor need a lens to properly focus in on some field of view? If the sensor is flexible, then doesnt' that make it tougher for the lens to do its job?
Interesting comment, William, since making flex circuits that don't break was one of the big challenges in the earlier days of this technology's R&D. I see your point about applications--flex image sensors could be used in many places where traditional rigid image sensors couldn't go before.
What has not been mentioned is the improvments in ruggedness and durability that would come from the circuitry not breaking when flexed a bit. That should open up a realm of applications where previously a display or sensor would have broken during normal use. A flexible image sensor could watch stamping die activity from a much closer viewpoint, for instance.
Even if they're not actually Dick Tracy-style, flexible wraparound watches and wristbands are definitely a possible application for this technology, as they are for other printed flex sensor technology. For example, those health-monitoring wristbands that take your temperature, heart rate and other data during exercise. Now they could record image data as well.
I especially appreciate the flexible nature of this technology. 'Wearable' smart devices (i.e. wristband) could become more of a reality with the ability to curve or bend the display surface. I would imagine the flexibility of this display surface would open up many new markets for innovative display applications.
To give engineers a better idea of the range of resins and polymers available as alternatives to other materials, this Technology Roundup presents several articles on engineering plastics that can do the job.
The first photos made with a 3D-printed telescope are here and they're not as fuzzy as you might expect. A team from the University of Sheffield beat NASA to the goal. The photos of the Moon were made with a reflecting telescope that cost the research team £100 to make (about $161 US).
A tiny humanoid robot has safely piloted a small plane all the way from cold start to takeoff, landing and coming to a full stop on the plane's designated runway. Yes, it happened in a pilot training simulation -- but the research team isn't far away from doing it in the real world.
Some in the US have welcomed 3D printing for boosting local economies and bringing some offshored manufacturing back onshore. Meanwhile, China is wielding its power of numbers, and its very different relationships between government, education, and industry, to kickstart a homegrown industry.
You can find out practically everything you need to know about engineering plastics as alternatives to other materials at the 2014 IAPD Plastics Expo. Admission is free for engineers, designers, specifiers, and OEMs, as well as students and faculty.
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