From selfies to the fifth dimension

The latest generations of smartphones can adjust for bad light, cope with high contrast, take a selfie when you utter
the word “cheese” and record videos any which way you like — forwards, backwards, fast or super slow. They also allow you to erase moving objects from a scene or combine multiple shots of a moving object in a single composite image. But that’s child’s play compared to the next generation of inventions. Here’s a sampling of the most promising ideas.

Smaller is better

Researchers at the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology have developed a tiny chip-based camera known as Vision-In-Package. With a total volume of less than one cubic centimeter, the device is based on technology used to concentrate solar energy for photovoltaic cells, and contains all the elements needed to capture and then send visual information – optics, a processor and a wireless transmitter. Due to be commercialized by the end of 2015, it could have applications in everything from robotic surgery and personal-health monitoring to automated farming and autonomous driving.

The magic of multiple lenses

Other companies are attempting to obtain similar results using arrays, rather than pairs, of lenses. These arrays, which are starting to appear on the market, take lots of photographs of the same scene from slightly different angles, and a computer program then combines these different data sets so as to mimic the output of a much larger, single lens. This technology means that people or objects can be placed in or out of focus even after the photo has been taken, or can be cut from one photo and put in another, complete with the correct depth information. Such arrays could even allow scenes to be reproduced physically using 3D printing or enable you to work out whether an object you’ve photographed on a shopping trip – a couch,
say – will fit into your house.

Who needs lenses?

Other researchers are developing cameras that do away with lenses altogether. Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs have built a device that uses a single sensor to record the light that bounces off an object and through a liquid-crystal array of thousands of tiny apertures. As opposed to a conventional camera, which uses a lens to focus the light from an object on to an array of sensors and so forms a real, physical image in space, this camera instead forms images in time. It does this by darkening a portion of the array’s apertures according to a pseudo-random pattern generated by a computer program, and then recording the light intensity that reaches the sensor. Repeating this process many times, using a different pattern of transparent and opaque apertures each time, it constructs the image using the combined intensity measurements, and does so with fewer data than a conventional camera generates.

Better zooms for smartphones

For the enthusiast, single-lens reflex or even compact cameras are still likely to offer crucial advantages over smartphones. Some compact cameras can magnify a scene by as much as 30 times, while smartphones generally are limited to “digital zoom” that simply expands pixels without providing more information. This shortcoming looks set to be overcome, or at least reduced. Israeli company Corephotonics has come up with a dual camera consisting of two fixed lenses, one wide-angled and the other a novel type of long focal-length lens. Expected to appear in phones later this year, the device uses software to combine the two cameras’ output in such a way as to provide smoothly varying magnification that is “comparable to mechanical zoom”, according to Eran Kali, the firm’s vice-president of marketing.



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