Washington, Mar 20 : A team of researchers from Stanford University are developing a digital camera that sees the world through thousands of tiny lenses, providing an electronic 'depth map' containing the distance from the camera to every object in the picture, a kind of super 3D.
Ordinary cameras take flat, two-dimensional photographs, while a camera with two lenses can take 3D photos, which produce images with depth perception.
However, the digital camera being worked on at Stanford will contain thousands of tiny lenses, each a miniature camera unto itself.
Led by electrical engineering Professor Abbas El Gamal, the research team is developing the super 3D camera, using what they call 'multi-aperture image sensor.'
They say they've shrunk the pixels on the sensor to 0.7 microns, several times smaller than pixels in standard digital cameras. They've grouped the pixels in arrays of 256 pixels each, and they're preparing to place a tiny lens atop each array.
"It's like having a lot of cameras on a single chip," said Keith Fife, a graduate student working with El Gamal and another electrical engineering professor, H.-S. Philip Wong.
In fact, if their prototype 3-megapixel chip had all its micro lenses in place, they would add up to 12,616 'cameras.'
According to the researchers, taking a photo of a face will precisely record the distances to the subject's eyes, nose, ears, chin, etc, leading to possible applications for facial recognition for security purposes, biological imaging, 3D printing, creation of 3D objects or people to inhabit virtual worlds, or 3D modeling of buildings.
An even more esoteric use of the new super 3D imaging technology could involve applications in artificial intelligence such as robotics.
Knowing the exact distance to an object might give robots better spatial vision than humans and allow them to perform delicate tasks now beyond their abilities.
"People are coming up with many things they might do with this," Fife said.
According to the researchers, their multi-aperture camera would look and feel like an ordinary camera, or even a smaller cell phone camera.
Fife said that the cell phone aspect is important, given that "the majority of the cameras in the world are now on phones."
In the article published in the February edition of the IEEE ISSCC Digest of Technical Papers, the researchers have reported more detailed applications for a camera with the ability to digitise images in a detailed depth map which can be stored on a computer for later processing and manipulation.
"You can choose to do things with that image that you weren't able to do with the regular 2-D image. You can say, 'I want to see only the objects at this distance,' and suddenly they'll appear for you. And you can wipe away everything else," Fife said
The researchers are now working out the manufacturing details of fabricating the micro-optics onto a camera chip.
They claim the finished product may cost less than existing digital cameras because the quality of a camera's main lens will no longer be of paramount importance.
"We believe that you can reduce the complexity of the main lens by shifting the complexity to the semiconductor," Fife said.