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‘Supercamera’ Takes Gigapixel Images

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DURHAM, N.C., June 20, 2012 — Synchronizing 98 microcameras into a single device has yielded a supercamera that can stitch together images with a resolution of 50 gigapixels. It turns out that the challenge to creating such high-pixel imaging lies in the sophistication of the integrated circuits, not the optics.

The Duke University camera, called AWARE 2, has five times better resolution than that of 20/20 human vision over a 120° horizontal field, and it has the potential to capture up to 50 gigapixels, or 50,000 megapixels, of data. Consumer cameras can take photos with sizes ranging only from 8 to 40 megapixels.

The 98 tiny cameras, each with a 14-megapixel sensor, yield nearly 100 separate, but accurate images, which are stitched together into a single highly detailed image using a computer processor.

A photograph of the Seattle skyline taken with AWARE 2 with image details as shown.

A photograph of the Seattle skyline taken with AWARE 2 with image details as shown. (Image: Duke University Imaging and Spectroscopy Program)

“Each one of the microcameras captures information from a specific area of the field of view,” said David Brady of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, who led the study. “In many instances, the camera can capture images of things that photographers cannot see themselves but can then detect when the image is viewed later.”

“Traditionally, one way of making better optics has been to add more glass elements, which increases complexity,” said Michael Gehm, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona and the developer of the software that combines the input from the microcameras. “This isn’t a problem just for imaging experts. Supercomputers face the same problem, with their ever-more-complicated processors, but at some point the complexity just saturates and becomes cost-prohibitive.”

David Brady
David Brady (Image: Duke University Photography)

Instead of making increasingly complex optics, Gehm said their approach offers a parallel array of electronic elements.

“A shared objective lens gathers light and routes it to the microcameras that surround it, just like a network computer hands out pieces to the individual workstations,” he said. “Each gets a different view and works on their little piece of the problem. We arrange for some overlap, so we don’t miss anything.”

The prototype camera is a long way from being commercially available. The current version, which measures 2.5 × 2.5 ft and is 20 in. deep, needs lots of space to house and cool its electronic control boards; only about 3 percent of the camera is made of the optical elements.

The AWARE 2 camera.
The AWARE 2 camera. (Image: Duke University Imaging and Spectroscopy Program)

The team estimates that it will be five years before a more efficient, handheld consumer version of the technology becomes available.

“The camera is so large now because of the electronic control boards and the need to add components to keep it from overheating,” Brady said. “As more efficient and compact electronics are developed, the age of handheld gigapixel photography should follow.”

The research, which was supported by DARPA, was published online in Nature.
Jun 2012
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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