DARPA is looking for cameras and other imaging equipment that are better and lighter than today's devices.

The agency's EXTREME Optics and Imaging programs aim at tackling a major obstacle to improving optics, namely current scientific dogma that holds that imaging systems must consist of a series of optical elements arranged linearly.

"The result of such assumptions is that certain high-performance imagery devices inevitably end up being large and heavy, composed of dozens or more optical elements," said a DARPA news release.

The agency sees the solution as developing engineered optical materials (EnMats) that are more powerful, yet smaller and lighter, optics that will enable better optical systems such as night vision goggles, hyperspectral imagers, and infrared search and track systems.

"EXTREME is focused on developing new EnMats — both two-dimensional metasurfaces as well as 3-D volumetric optics and holograms — that manipulate light in ways beyond classical rules of reflection and refraction," DARPA said. "EXTREME also will address multiscale modeling to enable design and optimization of EnMats across vastly different scales, from nanometer to centimeter, for example."

The goal is to demonstrate an optical system where "control of light propagation is decoupled from a specific geometric shape and can be tuned." Another goal is optical elements the size of a sugar cube.