Apple invents iPhone camera lens actuator made of artificial muscle

Posted:
in General Discussion edited June 2014
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday published an Apple patent application for a method of constructing a camera lens actuator that uses a single artificial muscle structure rather than traditional motors to control focus and aperture size.

image


According to Apple's aptly named "Artificial muscle camera lens actuator" filing, suggestions to apply artificial muscle technology to camera autofocus actuators have been floating around for some time, but the electro-active polymer (EAP) materials on which the tech is based were not suitable for mass manufacture until recently.

With the proliferation of haptic feedback features in devices like remotes for video game consoles, the appropriate engineering cogs are in place to mass produce the materials, though an exact production design tailored for camera autofocus actuators has yet to be vetted.

To that end, Apple proposes a micro electromechanical system (MEMS) design using an EAP layer having a frusto-conical shape as seen in the illustration below. Situated at the tip of the artificial muscle structure is an opening to be used as the camera's aperture, which can be variably displaced via complementary electrodes attached or screen printed onto the front and back of the layer.


Source: USPTO


The EAP layer itself can include one or more layers of polymer material sandwiched together between the two flexible electrodes. When voltage is applied, the potential differential generates an electrical field that subsequently activates conductive particles in the polymer layers to create a substantial force that results in elongation of the structure.

The example above shows the force exerting itself in a rearward direction with potential difference on opposing surfaces depicted by "e+" on the positive electrode and "e-" on the negative electrode. A spring attached to the lens barrel or lens holder creates a loaded opposing force that can overcome the first force, thereby facilitating forward and backward movement along the imaging axis.



Taking a closer look at the artificial muscle structure, the image below illustrates how both displacement and variable aperture control can be achieved in a single mechanism. The formation places a positive electrode on the inside of the EAP layer with a gap running from its base to the tip, splitting it into two separate actuation segments that control lens barrel movement.

A third electrode is placed within the created gap so that an aperture created in the EAP material can be variably controlled by changing the electrode's potential independently of the two actuation segments. Alternatively, aperture size may be controlled by changing the potentials on the two actuation segments relative to the third electrode.



Apple notes an artificial muscle structure is advantageous because it can carry relatively large optics and consumes extremely low levels of power.

Whether Apple will apply the technology to a future iOS device remains unclear. As portables like the iPhone become increasingly thin with each successive generation, however, the company may soon find a need to look in the direction of alternative solutions to the rather bulky voice coil motor used in current models.

Apple's artificial muscle camera lens actuator patent application was first filed for in August of 2013 and credits Aurelien R. Hubert, Douglas S. Brodie, Iain A. McAllister and Jeffrey N. Gleason as its inventors.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 67

    Many, Many years ago I submitted a patent for a device that would amplify radio waves, as part of that, it used interferometry to split a laser and cancel out other "non information" on the carrier signal. I also designed a "ferro fluid lens" system -- which showed up in someone else's patent about 10 years later (but it was kind of an obvious application and I doubt it was from what I submitted).

     

    The sad thing is that I sent this design to "Invention Submission Corporation" -- it's probably changed its name many, many times by now. That's a company that has ZERO engineers on hand to evaluate, but a lot of salespeople who say; "We think this has a lot of potential, so if you send in a few thousand more dollars, we can get to work on developing it further…"  Me; "You mean you don't have some people who can just look at what is being designed and realize that I've got 5 unique designs in here, and it would be really great to have an analog system to filter out nearly all noise on any signal, and then convert that to digital without having to boost the signal?" Idiots!

     

    Instead of a very complex lens system to focus with a "muscle", merely having a small current in a series of ferro-fluid  capillaries to change curvature in a microsecond without moving parts would make this incredibly simple.

     

    Sorry, I have to mope on occasion about having a mind that can solve things, but not a life where I can express any of those talents. 

     

    It's good to see someone having a chance to innovate and find applications for new materials and processes -- and that's why it's fun to track Apple.

  • Reply 2 of 67
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 33,407member
    Many, Many years ago I submitted a patent for a device that would amplify radio waves, as part of that, it used interferometry to split a laser and cancel out other "non information" on the carrier signal. I also designed a "ferro fluid lens" system -- which showed up in someone else's patent about 10 years later (but it was kind of an obvious application and I doubt it was from what I submitted).

    The sad thing is that I sent this design to "Invention Submission Corporation" -- it's probably changed its name many, many times by now. That's a company that has ZERO engineers on hand to evaluate, but a lot of salespeople who say; "We think this has a lot of potential, so if you send in a few thousand more dollars, we can get to work on developing it further…"  Me; "You mean you don't have some people who can just look at what is being designed and realize that I've got 5 unique designs in here, and it would be really great to have an analog system to filter out nearly all noise on any signal, and then convert that to digital without having to boost the signal?" Idiots!

    Instead of a very complex lens system to focus with a "muscle", merely having a small current in a series of ferro-fluid  capillaries to change curvature in a microsecond without moving parts would make this incredibly simple.

    Sorry, I have to mope on occasion about having a mind that can solve things, but not a life where I can express any of those talents. 

    It's good to see someone having a chance to innovate and find applications for new materials and processes -- and that's why it's fun to track Apple.

    Your patent idea reminded me of the oil lenses of the electric binoculars used in Frank Herbert's science-fiction masterpiece, Dune (1963). Of course, Herbert never had to engineer his descriptions to make sure they actually worked. I doubt there is any technology available that could make an ornithopter function.
  • Reply 3 of 67
    crowleycrowley Posts: 10,453member

    This artificial muscle sounds amazing, and gross.  Here's hoping they give the first Terminators rubber skin, so we can spot them easily.

  • Reply 4 of 67
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 33,407member
    crowley wrote: »
    This artificial muscle sounds amazing, and gross.  Here's hoping they give the first Terminators rubber skin, so we can spot them easily.

    No actual biological material is used.
  • Reply 5 of 67
    waterrocketswaterrockets Posts: 1,231member

    Interesting design. I wonder why they prefer to cover the entire circumference of the lens cone with this material rather than use several supporting members that can be independently tuned. I haven't messed with these actuators, but it seems like there could be some manufacturing variability on a piece with a large surface area, causing the lens to move laterally off the axis, and/or tilt, while multiple bits could be monitored and calibrated on the fly with software to keep it all collimated. 

     

    At any rate, this is a very cool use of the technology -- I really like the aperture bit, as that removes a ton of moving parts and will provide wonderful blur outside the depth of field since there are no blades/intersections.

  • Reply 6 of 67
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,784member
    Muscles are motor in reality, nature's motors. Bionics here we come. I'm very glad to see Apple into this sort of future mind set. I'm sure Google will be also looking into this in relation to their massive investment in robotics. All joking apart, the Cylons are coming!
  • Reply 7 of 67
    dick applebaumdick applebaum Posts: 12,527member
    She said: Is that an iPhone in your pocket -- or is it just happy to see me?
  • Reply 8 of 67
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,784member
    Interesting design. I wonder why they prefer to cover the entire circumference of the lens cone with this material rather than use several supporting members that can be independently tuned. I haven't messed with these actuators, but it seems like there could be some manufacturing variability on a piece with a large surface area, causing the lens to move laterally off the axis, and/or tilt, while multiple bits could be monitored and calibrated on the fly with software to keep it all collimated. 

    At any rate, this is a very cool use of the technology -- I really like the aperture bit, as that removes a ton of moving parts and will provide wonderful blur outside the depth of field since there are no blades/intersections.

    But ... there goes your bokeh! lol

    Would their patent exclude them from multiple muscles? That said, our eyes use one (as far as I know) for focus although many for eye movement. However, there is no reason Apple couldn't develop something superior to the human eye. A blend of insect eye and eagles eyes would seem appropriate for pretty spectacular photography I'd think. There is, as we all know, a lot of work going on with multiple lens technology for multiple DOF and angle of vision but all using traditional technology. As a semi pro photographer I get so excited about all these developments and I hope Canon are also looking at this too.

    Meanwhile I will have to go back and check my Biology 101 notes ...
  • Reply 9 of 67
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,784member
    She said: Is that an iPhone in your pocket -- or is it just happy to see me?

    ROFL
  • Reply 10 of 67
    dasanman69dasanman69 Posts: 13,002member
    Many, Many years ago......

    Ugh, you forgot the 'on a planet far, far away' part. :lol:
  • Reply 11 of 67
    crowleycrowley Posts: 10,453member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SpamSandwich View Post





    No actual biological material is used.

    I do know what artificial means :p

  • Reply 12 of 67
    waterrocketswaterrockets Posts: 1,231member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by digitalclips View Post





    But ... there goes your bokeh! lol



    Would their patent exclude them from multiple muscles? That said, our eyes use one (as far as I know) for focus although many for eye movement. However, there is no reason Apple couldn't develop something superior to the human eye. A blend of insect eye and eagles eyes would seem appropriate for pretty spectacular photography I'd think. There is, as we all know, a lot of work going on with multiple lens technology for multiple DOF and angle of vision but all using traditional technology. As a semi pro photographer I get so excited about all these developments and I hope Canon are also looking at this too.



    Meanwhile I will have to go back and check my Biology 101 notes ...

     

    I would think bokeh would be improved though. In my experience, the more aperture blades there are, the nicer the bokeh (for a given aperture and subject distance), and this is pretty much infinite blades.

     

    I don't know that this patent excludes multiples or not -- I don't know that much about patent law, but it seems like a reasonable design direction. The patent link above was broken, and the Google patent search doesn't seem to pick it up just yet... and that exhausted the amount to which I care to figure it out :)

  • Reply 13 of 67
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    "Can't innovate anymore, my ass!"
  • Reply 14 of 67
    formosaformosa Posts: 261member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Fake_William_Shatner View Post

     

    Instead of a very complex lens system to focus with a "muscle", merely having a small current in a series of ferro-fluid  capillaries to change curvature in a microsecond without moving parts would make this incredibly simple.


     

    I remember a patent submission like this about 5+ years ago. But i always wondered what the effect of gravity is on such a lens (or how much of the curvature is affected by gravity, depending upon orientation of the lens). I've never seen a commercial product that makes use of this idea, but at the time I always thought it may be applied to the human eye (for lens replacement).

  • Reply 15 of 67

    The affect of gravity would be minuscule -- it's the size to surface area ratio where as you get smaller, surface tension replaces gravity as a factor. This allows insects to walk on water (for instance).

     

    The other thing that you can use to cancel out gravity, is to put the "lens" inside of another fluid with a refraction index close to 0.

  • Reply 16 of 67
    anantksundaramanantksundaram Posts: 20,407member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Crowley View Post

     

    This artificial muscle sounds amazing, and gross.  Here's hoping they give the first Terminators rubber skin, so we can spot them easily.


    Artificial muscle + liquidmetal.... wow, we could be on our way to an interesting future....

  • Reply 17 of 67
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SpamSandwich View Post





    Your patent idea reminded me of the oil lenses of the electric binoculars used in Frank Herbert's science-fiction masterpiece, Dune (1963). Of course, Herbert never had to engineer his descriptions to make sure they actually worked. I doubt there is any technology available that could make an ornithopter function.

     

    I haven't read Dune for a long time -- but wasn't an Ornithopter working kind of like a Dragonfly? These insects create a vortex between their wings, and THAT lower pressure air zone acts as a sort of delta wing. Bumble bees use the same kind of process.

     

    It's possible to create such a vortex with helicopter technology -- but I think it's mainly a matter of "inertia of design". The current fan or duct tech is known and mastered. If a vortex cannot create much greater stability and economy -- what's the pressure to push the technology. 

     

    However, I do figure that vortex (like the Ornithopter) is far superior. But the liability of using ANY new technology in aviation is huge -- so we use what works forever and only make gradual improvements. Also, if you make a million selling same old, same old, and you couldn't really charge more for "new and better" -- what is the incentive to improve?

     

    The OTHER huge problem however in an Ornithopter is the material strength that would be required -- in the Dune design, it keeps changing the vector of the blades. That isn't the way I would design one -- but it's a lot cooler in a Sci Fi story. We also don't have anything with the strength to weight ratio that a Dragonfly wing has with an 18 foot span.

  • Reply 18 of 67
    fracfrac Posts: 480member
    Now we know why Ive was smiling like a Cheshire cat when he talked about "new materials". ;)
    At some point in Apple's future, folks will point to 2014 and the 100 Days(nice round figure) that spans from WWDC to the release of the iPhone 6 along with iOS 8 in autumn and opine that 'This is where the transformation happened' and conveniently forget the tens of thousands of hours of sweat n' crap ;)that came before.
    I have to say, this is all looking rather good. Ive's comment, "best product roadmap ever", iOS more open and this sort of blue sky thinking. Even split-adjusted, the stock is looking cheap.
  • Reply 19 of 67
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Fake_William_Shatner View Post

     

    The affect of gravity would be minuscule -- it's the size to surface area ratio where as you get smaller, surface tension replaces gravity as a factor. This allows insects to walk on water (for instance).

     

    The other thing that you can use to cancel out gravity, is to put the "lens" inside of another fluid with a refraction index close to 0.


     

    Sorry the refraction index for a material that does not distort light as it passes through is "1". We only have a few experimental materials with a refraction index less than 1. Diamond I think is 1.5 and that's what allows it to do some tricks with light such that facets create a "sparkle" which is also a prismatic effect on light.

     

    The curvature of the surface boundary is what allows glass to create a lens effect even though MOST glass (except doped glass like leaded glass) is close to 1.03. So you could have a ferrofluid (small metallic particles suspended in an oil such that magnetic fields act on it -- in this case it would need to be either transparent, or a high quality mirror) inside of a hydrophilic substance (oil and water effect to reduce mixing). A very simple change from my capillary approach.

     

    I still have a design for a flexible exo suit that would make people blast resistant and able to survive extreme depths -- it was a side effect of coming up with a way to exercise a person and I realized I could just reverse a few things to power the motion instead. The things I would build if I ever got with the right group of people who were good at "all the other stuff" that makes a business run.

     

    It took me a long time to manage life by shutting down the creativity. When I finally got a "J.O.B." the less creativity in my brain, the better to function. It's very frustrating to not be good at the money aspect when that's the #1 factor in getting anywhere in today's world.

  • Reply 20 of 67
    boredumbboredumb Posts: 1,418member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by dasanman69 View Post

     
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Fake_William_Shatner View Post



    Many, Many years ago......




    Ugh, you forgot the 'on a planet far, far away' part. image

    Okay, so now we've got Star Wars, to go along with Dune, the Terminators and Battlestar Galactica,

    but I have to say what Fake_William_Shatner reminded me of was…The Man Who Fell to Earth.

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