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  • Video Cameras Learn from Insect Eyes
Aug 2006
ADELAIDE, Australia, Aug. 30, 2006 -- The bane of all wedding videos -- the bride in front of a window whose face is so shadowed that her features are obscured -- may soon be a thing of the past.

By mimicking how insects see, a University of Adelaide researcher can now produce digital videos in which every detail is visible. The technique solves a critical problem with surveillance cameras, for which image clarity is everything.flybrain2.jpg
By mimicking how insects see, researchers can now produce digital videos that reveal every detail. (Photos: University of Adelaide)
"When it comes to seeing," said Russell Brinkworth, a postdoctoral research fellow in physiology at the University of Adelaide, "even a tiny insect brain can outperform any current artificial system. As we can, they can see detail in light and dark at the same time."

Traditional cameras use a single average light setting to control image brightness. This is fine, said Brinkworth, if there are similar levels of lighting over the entire scene. But it's not so good if some parts are much brighter than others. "In nature, the individual cells of the eye adjust to a part of the image independently in order to capture the maximum amount of information about the scene. This means that even in difficult lighting conditions, such as a person standing in front of a window, you can see both the person's face and the scenery outside at the same time, something a traditional camera cannot do." flybrain3.jpg
A parking garage as seen by a conventional camera and from a fly's brain. Above, captured with traditional camera; below, recorded from inside a fly's brain.

By recording from cells in the brains of insects, Brinkworth and his colleagues have shown it is possible to determine exactly how animal eyes work and to reproduce the process using computer software and hardware.

"It's a fundamentally new way of thinking about vision technology," he said. "Our eyes, and insect eyes, are designed to detect movement. In fact, we can't actually see anything that's stationary relative to our eyes. The image in our mind is created by movement -- the movement of our bodies, flickering of our eyes.

This shows how our eyes work versus how cameras work. Above, traditional cameras see either dark parts (left) or the light parts of an image (right). Below, eyes see both at the same time (left) and keep only the most important bits (right).
"By learning from the insect world we will be able to create video cameras that can: resolve detail in light and dark; detect moving objects; rapidly compress and transmit video at incredible speed; and detect and measure the speed of very small objects moving in the distance," he said.

Brinkworth's software can already enhance existing video footage. "What we want to do," he said, "is to wire this into existing camera sensor technology -- our software would be written to a computer chip that would sit between the sensor and the digital converter."

He said he is keeping the technology under wraps until he signs a commercial partner, but the team has already received support from the US Air Force.

Brinkworth is one of 16 young scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time as part of Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by Australia's Federal and Victorian Governments. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of British Council Australia to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

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1. A generic term for detector. 2. A complete optical/mechanical/electronic system that contains some form of radiation detector.
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