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Game Changer

This Caltech Engineer Can Make Just About Anything Tiny. Next Up: The Camera

Ali Hajimiri reckons his prototype, slimmer than a human hair, could be invaluable in endoscopy and other procedures.
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Illustration: Sam Kerr

A camera so small you could stick it on a wall, on your clothes, or even on your skin without anyone noticing? Sounds like the stuff of spy novels. But not for long. Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, estimates his lozenge-shaped camera, thinner than a human hair, could come to market in as few as three years.

Hajimiri needs tweezers to pick up the prototype, which looks a bit like a computer chip but is a nanoscale maze of silicon, silicon dioxide, and germanium strands called an optical phased array. The arrangement detects and captures light without lenses or mechanical parts, enabling it to produce images at many different focal depths simultaneously. The potential applications for the camera are vast, particularly when it comes to medicine. “Endoscopy devices that take images inside [the digestive system] are limited by the camera,” he says. “Imagine you can have something so thin that it doesn’t impact anything.”