June 21, 2012 at 4:55 PM ET
While photographers marvel at the 20 or 30 megapixels captured by the latest cameras, researchers at Duke laugh quietly and return to their lab to continue work on a system that could capture 50 gigapixels at the touch of a button.
For comparison, if your average point-and-shoot picture was the size of a word on this page, a 50-gigapixel shot would be around the size of your entire screen.
Gigapixels aren't new in and of themselves, of course: Enormous photos of the Milky Way or Obama's inauguration are both effective demonstrations of the power of huge images. But generally these giant pictures are created by one camera that takes hundreds (or thousands) of shots, which are then fitted together after the fact. Not a problem if you're taking pictures of stars, but no good if you wanted to capture a flock of birds taking off.
The team at Duke, led by David Brady at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, decided to take things a different direction: instead of taking lots of pictures in sequence with one camera, why not take lots of pictures at once with a bunch of cameras?
The result is the AWARE-2 camera system, a machine that looks like something out of science fiction. It bristles with wires and ports, and houses a lens array that could be the eye of an enormous robotic insect.
The system actually shares many characteristics with insects' compound eyes: A single image enters through a central lens, but is then refracted outward in 98 different directions to 98 different image sensors, each of which receives a different piece of the picture. The pieces are then assembled by a central processor.
Images produced by the system are enormous. 50 gigapixels is the maximum theoretical size, but even a fraction of that that is far larger than any picture most people have ever taken. Look at the shot below; on this enormous landscape, the tiny white dots on the sky are in fact birds, captured in enough detail that you can zoom in and check out the details of their wings. (here's a larger version)
That's with a prototype device using only half the microcameras and the first generation of lenses designed for the system. Brady explains that right now, the size and quality of images is limited by the quality of the main objective lens, but they have already built a superior lens for 10-gigapixel images.
50 gigapixels is the upper limit because it is the precision limit of lens-manufacturing technology, and also because beyond that you start running into the resolution limit of the atmosphere, i.e. what can be discerned through all those pesky air molecules between the camera and the subject. So it's no surprise that they're considering imaging at that size for astronomical rather than terrestrial photography.
The applications of enormous images captured more or less instantly are easy to imagine, both in everyday life, academic research, and for the military, which is funding the project through DARPA.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.