Startup DynaOptics is Fitting an Optical Zoom Into a Slim Smartphone

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Photo: StartX
DynaOptics CEO Li Han Chan shows a prototype of the company's optical focus technology.

After seeing Apple CEO Tim Cook blaze through the list of features on the new iPhones, you’d think today’s smartphones have it all.

Not quite, thinks DynaOptics. Smartphones are missing an optical zoom. Or if a smartphone has one, you probably don’t love it, because the zoom assembly sticks awkwardly out of the phone.

Last week, DynaOptics unveiled its optical zoom design at a StartX launch event. (StartX is a nonprofit company that runs an accelerator for Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs. Since its founding in 2009, it has supported 191 start-ups that in aggregate have so far attracted $419 million of investment.)

DynaOptics says its technology will allow mobile device manufacturers to offer cameras with optical zoom without making the phone thicker or requiring the zoom lens to protrude. The company says its secret is its lenses: they are asymmetrical, so a sideways movement can change the perspective from near to far. Scratching your head? Look at the company’s illustration, below; this is a concept that’s easier to show than to tell.

Image: DynaOptics

Guangya Zhou, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore, invented the technology and serves as an advisor to the company. CEO Li Han Chan, who received her B.A. from Stanford University, provides the Stanford connection. Chan pointed out that the member of the  DynaOptics team who is making sure the technology is ready for high-volume production previously worked on camera module manufacturing for China’s Foxconn .  

Chan says DynaOptics has raised $2 million to date, and is looking for more. The company, which brought prototypes to the StartX event, says it will have engineering samples available for mobile device makers during the first quarter of 2015, and will be ready to undertake mass production by late 2015.

DynaOptics is not the only company trying to make optical zooming work within the geometry of a thin mobile device. Israeli start-up Corephotonics thinks the answer is two fixed lenses—one with a broad field of view that is limited in distance, and one with a narrow field that extends much farther. Corephotonics’ software combines the two images in different ways to create a zoom effect. Stealth start-up Light seems to be taking a different tack entirely, working on a multicamera approach. In the meanwhile, cellphone users can always opt for low-tech approaches—like a rubber band with a magnifying lens that slips over a phone’s built-in lens.

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