Mar 192011
 
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A camera with a unique, spherical lens may bring single-shot gigapixel cameras closer to reality.

Imagine snapping a panoramic picture from the top of the Empire State Building, then zooming in on a speck to reveal a quarter lying on the sidewalk. That’s the promise of single-shot gigapixel cameras—cameras that shoot images composed of at least one billion pixels, or picture elements. Apart from their obvious appeal to photographers, gigapixel images also hold tremendous potential for law enforcement and the military. Such high resolution would enable unmanned aerial vehicles to capture detail down to a license plate number while flying at altitudes too high to be spotted from the ground.

The Internet is already abuzz with sites, such as Google Earth, 360world.eu and GigaPan (created by Carnegie Mellon University, NASA and Google), that allow gigapixel digital photographs to be uploaded, viewed and shared across the Web. But these photographs actually consist of several megapixel-size images pieced together digitally. This is often accomplished using a long-lens digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera placed atop a motorized mount. Software controls the movement of the camera, which captures a mosaic of hundreds or even thousands of images that, when placed together, create a single, high-resolution scene. The main drawback to this approach is that it can take up to several hours to complete the shoot, during which time lighting conditions may change and objects can move in and out of the frames.

Researchers are working to develop a camera that can take a gigapixel-quality image in a single snapshot. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is investing $25 million over the next three and a half years into developing such compact devices. “We are no longer dealing with fixed installations or army tank units or missile silo units,” says Ravi Athale, a consultant to DARPA on this program. “[Fighting terrorism requires] an awareness of what’s going on in a wide area the size of a medium city.” Current satellite images or those taken from drones are extremely high resolution but very narrow in view, like “looking through a soda straw,” Athale says.

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