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New gigapixel camera may revolutionize photography, surveillance

June 20, 2012|By Jon Bardin, Los Angeles Times / For the Science Now blog
  • A photograph of the Seattle skyline taken with the Aware-2 camera.
A photograph of the Seattle skyline taken with the Aware-2 camera. (Duke University Imaging…)

Say cheese: Engineers have created a new camera with the capability of capturing over a gigapixel of data, a resolution that is significantly better than normal human vision.

Pixels represent individual points of data in an image, so the more pixels in a single image, the more details can be resolved within that image. The average retail camera currently captures only about 8 to 10 megapixels. The resolution of the gigapixel camera is at least 100 times better than that, and the researchers say their design may eventually be able to capture 50 gigapixels at once.

The new device, called Aware-2, is actually made up of 98 small cameras that surround a common lens, which gathers light and sends it to the cameras. Each of the 98 cameras captures a small part of the device’s field of view and a specially-designed computer processor stitches the images together.

The resulting image has far more detail than the human eye can handle. But photographers using the camera can zoom in on different parts of the images in great detail, essentially allowing a single image to become many detailed photographs, according to the researchers, who work at UC San Diego, Duke University, the University of Arizona, and a company called Distance Focus.

Perhaps the most obvious uses are in the defense and security arenas, where such capabilities would allow for easy surveillance of large areas. Not surprisingly then, the research was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But the camera also has many scientific uses. The report, published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature, provides an example from an observation of swans in North Carolina’s Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Area. A single image of a lake allows researchers to count the exact number of swans at one time across an extremely wide area, something that would be technically impossible without such a powerful camera.

For now, the camera is too large and expensive for general use. It looks more like a high-tech stereo speaker than a camera – it’s a jumble of wires housed in a metal frame that’s 2 1/2 feet square and almost 2 feet deep. But the scientists believe that their prototype will lead quickly to a smaller next-generation camera that can be used by security companies and enthusiasts alike, ushering in a new era of gigapixel photography. 

This change, they write, has the potential to fundamentally change how we take photos:

“Ubiquitous gigapixel cameras may transform the central challenge of photography from the question of where to point the camera to that of how to mine the data.”

Return to the Science Now blog.

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