January 21, 2011

Camera Better Than the Human Eye

By: Rhonda Craig, Ivanhoe Health Correspondent

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Researchers in Illinois have developed a tiny new camera with technology that is said to be better than the human eye.

Investigators from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said they used the human eye as an inspiration but wanted to take the technology far beyond it. This new "eyeball camera" has a 3.5x optical zoom, takes sharp images, and is about the size of a nickel.

"The compact size and light weight enables applications such as night vision, endoscopic imaging, and robotics vision," Yonggang Huang, of Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, told Ivanhoe.

Huang and his colleague, John Rogers, chair in engineering and professor of materials at the University of Illinois, said their goal was to develop something simple that can zoom and capture good images. The new camera can do many things that regular cameras or fixed spherical cameras cannot.

"The human eye can form clear images with simple lens, and therefore is small and light, but it lacks the zoom capability. An SLR is capable of zoom, but it requires complex lens systems to form clear images, and therefore is bulky and expensive. A tunable, spherical eye combines the advantages of the human eye and an SLR," Huang said.

According to researchers, earlier eyeball camera designs could not accommodate variable zoom because of their design. For this latest camera, the research team used various interconnected and flexible silicon photodetectors on a thin, elastic membrane, which can easily change shape. The camera system also has an integrated lens that is created by putting a thin, elastic membrane on a water chamber with a clear glass window underneath.

Researchers say there's still much more engineering work to be done before the cameras show up on retail shelves, but when that does happen, it could mean big benefits for consumers.

"This zoomable camera can be integrated into cell phones, notebooks, and PDAs for better imaging capability. It can also be used for better, cheaper and smaller sports video cameras to be implanted on football helmets," Huang said.

SOURCE: The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), January 17, 2011