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Scrambled Light Hones Images
Apr 2009
PRINCETON, N.J., April 22, 2009 – A new imaging system can unscramble the rich visual information provided by nonlinear optical materials to produce sharper images with a wider field of view. The method could improve medical diagnostics by helping to build more powerful microscopes and other optical imaging systems.

“It allows you to take a closer look at an object without narrowing your field of view,” said Jason Fleischer, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University who led the research. The study, co-written with graduate students Christopher Barsi and Wenjie Wan, is reported as the cover story in the April edition of Nature Photonics.

Electrical engineer Jason Fleischer led a group of Princeton University researchers in inventing a technique to produce sharper images and a wider field of view for medical diagnostics, microscopes and other imaging systems. Their approach passes light through a nonlinear crystal which ordinarily would distort an image. The researchers created a computer algorithm that not only reconstructs the image but also captures details that would otherwise be lost. (Photo: Frank Wojciechowski)

Cameras and other optical devices – including the human eye – are limited by the amount of light that they can collect through their lens openings, or apertures. For a light ray to be recorded, it must pass through the lens and reach the device’s “detector” – such as the eye’s retina or a digital camera’s detector. But many light rays never make it to the detector, either because they are too weak or because they are deflected.

This problem is particularly acute with details that are smaller than the wavelength of light. (Each color of light has a distinct wavelength – green, for instance, has a wavelength of 530 nm, roughly the size of a typical bacterium’s internal structure.) Light rays from such tiny features fade before they reach the lens. To capture these rays, devices must probe very near the surface of the object and scan it point by point, stitching together a full image.

“In effect, these devices suffer from ‘tunnel vision,’” Fleischer said.

The new method addresses the shortcomings of small apertures by taking advantage of the unusual properties of substances called nonlinear optical materials. In conventional lens materials such as glass or plastic, rays of light pass through without interacting with one another. In nonlinear materials, light rays mix with each other in complex ways. Rays that don’t reach the camera may pass along some of their information to rays that do get recorded by it. Thanks to the mixing of rays, information that otherwise would be lost manages to reach the camera.

An object illuminated by light reflects rays in many directions (gray arrows). Left: With a normal lens, some rays are captured by a camera while other rays are missed, resulting in a blurry image with a limited field of view. Right: The new method uses a nonlinear material to let the rays talk with each other. The original rays are altered and new rays (shown in red) are generated. The resulting picture in the camera is scrambled, but a computer algorithm can undo the mixing and yield a crisp, wide-field image. (Illustration: Christopher Barsi)

The image from a nonlinear lens would therefore be rich in detail. Unfortunately, it also would be distorted – and useless for conventional optics. But if the information could be unscrambled, a computer could reconstruct a high-resolution undistorted image of the entire scene. “In such an image, all parts of the scene will be ‘zoomed in’ at the same time,” Fleischer said.

Until now, scientists have achieved this unscrambling and reconstruction only in highly constrained settings such as fiber optic cables. This is partly because cameras and other optical equipment typically don’t record full visual information – they record only color and brightness, the properties that are perceived in everyday experience. Much of the information essential to recovering the finer details of an object or scene is captured by another light property called phase, which measures the time and location of a wave peak.

To capture the visual information given by their nonlinear material, the Princeton researchers used equipment to take a special type of photograph, called a hologram, which records phase. They also combined data from a normal camera. As the first step in processing all this information, they created a simplified model of the flow of light through a nonlinear material. Next they developed a mathematical technique that takes the distorted image and works backward to calculate the visual information at every point in space between the image and the object. This method makes it possible to create high-resolution images at any chosen point – at the camera, at the location of the object itself or somewhere in between.

Armed with these techniques, the Princeton team set up its imaging system. The core component, a nonlinear wave mixer, is a rectangular pill-size crystal of a material called strontium barium niobate. The researchers placed the object to be imaged on one side of the crystal and the image-capturing equipment on the other. They tested the system by obtaining images of various objects, including a chart developed by the US Air Force that is widely used to calibrate optical devices. In each case the system could image the objects with high resolution. “We were surprised at how well it worked,” Barsi said.

By capturing information that normally would be lost, the new method could greatly enhance the resolution using normal light – allowing scientists to build microscopes and other devices capable of so-called superresolution. Conventional methods could attain similar resolution using ultraviolet light or x-rays, which have much smaller wavelengths than visible light, but this type of radiation harms living cells. “The new method could help you see with much better precision, but with a light the cell actually likes,” Fleischer said.

Princetons Christopher Barsi and Wenjie Wan, standing, and Jason Fleischer, seated. (Photo: Frank Wojciechowski)

Another application of the method is in lithography – etching fine patterns on surfaces – which is a key step in the manufacture of computer chips, biomedical components and other miniaturized devices. This could be done by burning the target surface with a laser beam shaped by using the new technique in reverse: starting with a wide-field pattern and letting the nonlinear crystal do the zooming.

Another interesting use could be in tomography, a technology often used to get 3-D images of body parts for medical diagnostics. Current methods typically take a number of 2-D images from different viewpoints and assemble them into a 3-D image. In contrast, the new system makes it possible to directly compute the 3-D visual information from images at a single viewpoint, potentially simplifying the setup.

Other potential uses of the new method are in data encryption and in characterizing the optical properties of new nonlinear materials. The method could improve scientists’ fundamental understanding of how light behaves when passing through such media. Besides exploring some of these possibilities, the researchers are working on developing a better nonlinear lens material and on improving their reconstruction technique.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Barsi was supported by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship provided by the Army Research Office.

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An opening or hole through which radiation or matter may pass.
A solid with a structure that exhibits a basically symmetrical and geometrical arrangement. A crystal may already possess this structure, or it may acquire it through mechanical means. More than 50 chemical substances are important to the optical industry in crystal form. Large single crystals often are used because of their transparency in different spectral regions. However, as some single crystals are very brittle and liable to split under strain, attempts have been made to grind them very...
A general term referring to the situation in which an image is not a true-to-scale reproduction of an object. The term also is used to connote the temporal alteration of the signal's waveform shape. There are many types of distortion. See also anamorphic distortion; curvilinear distortion; keystone distortion; panoramic distortion; perspective distortion; radial distortion; stereoscopic distortion; tangential distortion; wide-angle distortion.
In optics, an image is the reconstruction of light rays from a source or object when light from that source or object is passed through a system of optics and onto an image forming plane. Light rays passing through an optical system tend to either converge (real image) or diverge (virtual image) to a plane (also called the image plane) in which a visual reproduction of the object is formed. This reconstructed pictorial representation of the object is called an image.
An instrument consisting essentially of a tube 160 mm long, with an objective lens at the distant end and an eyepiece at the near end. The objective forms a real aerial image of the object in the focal plane of the eyepiece where it is observed by the eye. The overall magnifying power is equal to the linear magnification of the objective multiplied by the magnifying power of the eyepiece. The eyepiece can be replaced by a film to photograph the primary image, or a positive or negative relay...
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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