Ohio State engineers have made a single microscope lens that is capable of capturing enough angles to form a 3D picture of a object. Soon there could be an all-paramecium version of Avatar.

For a long time, on screen, in pictures, and in a lab, two dimensional images were enough. One angle gave people all they wanted to know about a subject. They could imagine the extra dimensions. Then 3D technology came into play, and flat pictures weren't enough. But in order to capture an image in three dimensions, people needed to take at least two different images of it at the same time. To see the world in three dimensions, the human brain takes the slight variations seen by the left eye and the right eye and constructs one picture. In order to render things in three dimensions, movies have to re-construct that variation.

When it comes to the lab, things get even more detailed. Up until now, complicated apparatuses employ many different lenses, all precisely placed, to construct a 3D image. Although these can construct a detailed image, they're unwieldy and have to move around the object. Now engineers at Ohio State University have made one lens that, when focused on an object can get enough information to construct a detailed 3D picture of it.

The final lens is about the size of a fingernail - although prototypes were much bigger. It looks like a plate with many different rings cut into it by a lathe. A lathe, however, would cut even grooves all the way around a plate. The rings on the lens look even, but they aren't. The rings around the lens were cut by a diamond blade, and they vary in depth and angle by 10 billionths of a meter. No view through the lens will give someone precisely the same angle on the object being viewed through it.

The lens is compact, can be kept in one place, but can give scientists nine different angles on the same object at the same time. The microscope that uses this lens can't be entirely stripped down - the different angles still require a computer to merge them into one three dimensional image. The image up above is the lens' un-merged view of the tip of a ballpoint pen. Still, the overall version would be a great deal more compact and easy-to-use than current models. No word on if the team is making a giant lens for movie cameras yet.

Read the full scientific paper via Journal of the Optical Society of America (via Ohio State University)