Startup develops optical zoom lens for smartphones

The company has already had interest from Apple, Samsung, Sony and others

The Alvarez lens that sits at the heart of the smartphone optical zoom unit being developed by DynaOptics

The Alvarez lens that sits at the heart of the smartphone optical zoom unit being developed by DynaOptics

A Silicon Valley startup is developing an optical zoom lens unit that's thin enough to slip inside of a smartphone and won't protrude when used.

DynaOptics has spent two years working on the device, which is based on an Alvarez lens, a uniquely shaped lens that produces optical zoom through lateral movement of two lens halves that sit together.

Optical zoom produces a better-quality image than the digital zoom used on phones today, but its inclusion in smartphones has been hampered by the bulky lenses required.

The lenses are big because the zoom is produced when the perpendicular distance between lenses is altered, as can be seen in a compact camera when the length of the lens changes with the zoom. While that movement isn't a problem in a camera, it isn't suitable for use in a thin smartphone. Several companies have tried to commercialize smartphones with larger lenses, and all have failed.

"We're bringing you optical zoom so that it will fit into your phone," said Li Han Chan, co-founder and CEO of DynaOptics, in an interview at Start X, the Palo Alto startup accelerator that's helping the company get off the ground.

She demonstrated the technology with a unit that jumped between no zoom and three-times zoom with the flick of a switch. The resulting image was a little bit blurry, something that will disappear as the technology for producing the lenses improves, Chan said.

The company is also working on finer control of the lens position to make variable zooming possible.

DynaOptics is working fast toward its release of engineering samples, currently scheduled for March 2015. Those samples will allow for evaluation of the unit ahead of mass production, which is scheduled for late next year, Chan said. If all goes according to plan -- and phone makers bite -- the first handsets packing the technology could be on sale some time in 2016.

The company said it's already had strong interest and has signed more than a dozen agreements to share the technology with the likes of Apple, Sony, Samsung, LG, Huawei, HTC, Nokia, BlackBerry, Lenovo and Asus so it can be evaluated.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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