Money Matters - Simplified

Nextgen camera gives a billion pixel view

Scientists at Duke University have put together an experimental camera that can zoom in on portions of an image to extraordinary details after a photo has been taken. This development can alter the way images are captured and viewed.

The new camera collects more than 30 times as much picture data as compared to existing cameras who can take photographs that have pixel counts in the tens of millions. A pixel is one of the many tiny areas of illumination on a display screen from which an image is composed. The more pixels, the more detailed the image will be.

The $25 million project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense.The military is interested in high-resolution cameras as tools for aerial or land-based surveillance.

The Duke device has been named 'Aware-2', is a long way from being a product. The current version needs lots of space to house and cool its electronic boards; it weighs 100 pounds and is about the size of two stacked microwave ovens. It also takes about 18 seconds to shoot a frame and record the data on a disk.

If the Duke device can be shrunk to hand-held size, it can revolutionize photography. Instead of deciding where to focus a camera, a user would simply shoot a scene, then later zoom in on any part of the picture and view it in extreme detail. That means desirable or useful portions of a photo could be identified after the image was captured.

Taking a picture with a traditional digital camera "is like looking through a soda straw since you can only see a narrow part of the scene," said David Brady, optical engineer at Duke, who led the team that designed the one-gigapixel camera. "Ours is more like a fire hose, the world comes at you full blast."

The secret of the Duke device is its spherical lens, a design first proposed in the late 19th century. Although very effective spherical lenses exist naturally (the human eye).

The Duke group overcame the challenge by installing nearly 100 microcameras, each with a 14-megapixel sensor, on the outside of a small sphere about the size of a football. The setup yields nearly 100 separate but accurately focused images. A computer connected to the sphere then stitches them together to create a composite whole.

As of now, the camera takes only black-and-white pictures. Dr. Brady said his team will finish building a 10-gigapixel color version by year-end and then will construct a 50-gigapixel device.

The team hopes to begin manufacturing industrial-type gigapixel cameras on a limited basis in 2013. But scientists estimate it would take at least several years before a hand-held, consumer version of the technology becomes available.

Details of the Duke camera were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.