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Bug-eyed camera gets wide angle view - through 180 lenses

Nature
The insectoid eye device.

We may all be able to get a bug's-eye view of the world with new camera technology being developed by University of Illinois researchers. Like an insect's compound eye, their device uses many tiny lenses to form an extremely wide-angle image with a few interesting qualities.

Most cameras work by gathering light through a single large lens at the front of the camera, and using other internal lenses to focus that light onto a flat surface, like film or a digital sensor. And human eyes work much the same way.

But the eyes of many arthropods, including the likes of the common housefly, are totally different: They use huge numbers of "ommatidia," tiny lenses that take in a small piece of the overall image. The patchwork of tiny perspectives is assembled at the center of the eye; the result is a complete image, though it must be very different from what we see.

A team at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led by John Rogers, has attempted to replicate this, albeit on a smaller scale. The team's initial effort is a "modest" 180 lenses arrayed over a similar number of tiny image sensors. A computer collates the data from all these micro-cameras and pieces together the bigger picture.

It's the first such system that does everything the insect eye does, and successfully at that. Interestingly, despite showing nearly a 160-degree range, the resultant image shows none of the familiar distortion associated with ultra-wide-angle lenses. Rogers explained in an email to NBC News:

For a full insect type eye like the one that we constructed, the center of the field of view is exactly the same as the periphery — no distortions, loss of resolution, or reduction in illumination intensity. The construction essentially allows one to look in all directions at once.

Indeed, going beyond even the current wide view is part of the planned evolution of the device. Some animals have eyes that see in front and behind them at the same time. The device is adjustable — the circuitry is flexible and adapts as the researchers "blow it up like a balloon," as Rogers described it to Nature.

Bug eye 2
An insect with beyond hemispherical eyes, and the device adjusted to mimic them.

But in order to get a decent image, they'll need more "eyes": 180 lenses may sound like a lot, but only small, relatively simple insect eyes have that many ommatidia — fire ants and bark beetles, for instance. Rogers believes the idea is scalable to the level of dragonfly eyes, which may have 20,000 lenses, or even beyond that.

Unfortunately, the high-precision tooling necessary for such complex machinery and lens elements isn't available to the team yet. But such a powerful and interesting project is sure to warrant further development. Alternative imaging techniques, such as lightfields in the Lytro camera or inverted compound imagers like the 50-gigapixel AWARE-2, have been the subject of much attention over the last few years.

The paper, "Optical devices: Seeing the world through an insect's eyes," appeared this week in the scientific journal Nature.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.