A camera that can be wrapped around objects and bent to flexibly adjust the field of view has been developed by American engineers.
The team from Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that developed the novel device has called it a sheet or flex camera. The researchers envision that in future, such image-capturing sheets could, for example, be wrapped around a car to provide a view of the vehicle’s entire surroundings to the driver. Alternatively, they could be wrapped around a lamppost or used to manufacture bendable cameras the size of a credit card.
"Cameras today capture the world from essentially a single point in space," explained Professor Shree K. Nayar, who led the research. "While the camera industry has made remarkable progress in shrinking the camera to a tiny device with ever increasing imaging quality, we are exploring a radically different approach to imaging. We believe there are numerous applications for cameras that are large in format but very thin and highly flexible."
The camera consists of an array of lenses, which can be bent as the user needs. The team had to solve one major issue during the development: when the sheet is bent, the lenses in the stretched part of the array separate, which results in gaps in the visual data. The team therefore developed an adaptive lens technology, which relies on an elastic material based on silicon. This allows the lens to be squeezed and stretched without affecting the image quality. In tests, the prototype was able to capture high-quality images over a wide range of deformations of the sheet.
"The adaptive lens array we have developed is an important step towards making the concept of flexible sheet cameras viable," Nayar said. "The next step will be to develop large-format detector arrays to go with the deformable lens array. The amalgamation of the two technologies will lay the foundation for a new class of cameras that expand the range of applications that benefit from imaging."
The researchers believe that in future a cost-effective manufacturing technique will be developed that would enable producing rolls of plastic or fabric covered with the flexible lens. With such a technology, every object or surface could be easily turned into a camera providing unusual fields of view.