“One of the main issues was mass and weight,” said Gary Bradski, chief technologist at OpenCV.ai, a developer of freely available image processing software. “I mean, how much weight can your nose hold?”

The lightness is an advantage of Metalenz, which has demonstrated ultra-thin lenses made of two-dimensional silicon, which are structured with ultra-thin transparent structures, each smaller than the wavelength of the light. However, fabricating the lens like integrated circuits offers other important advantages.

“One of the most powerful things you get from metamaterials, or metasurfaces, is the ability to really reduce the complexity of a system while improving overall performance,” said Devlin. “Medical or scientific applications that were locked up in laboratories because they were really big, bulky, and expensive are now being offered at a price in a form factor that you can fit into anyone’s phone.”

An early possibility will be to make it possible to place sensors directly behind smartphone displays so that the entire surface of a phone can be used. It will also simplify the “structured light” sensors that project patterns of points that are used for facial recognition.

The most powerful characteristic of microelectronics was the ability to miniaturize circuits, making them faster, more powerful, and less expensive over many decades. Similarly, metamaterials will transform the way designers use rays of light.

For example, scientists completing an advanced millimeter telescope due to be installed at Simons Observatory in Chile next year have used metamaterials for the tiles that coat the interior of the telescope to capture virtually all of the stray light. Photons that land on the surface of the tiles are captured by a surface of ultra-small conical structures, said Mark Devlin (unrelated to Metalenz founder), a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania who leads the design of the telescope.

“The tiles are light, cheap, easy to install,” he said, “and they won’t fall off.”