Every Single Gadget Could "See" With World's Tiniest, Simplest Camera

robot eyes

Picture a camera that has no lens, no moving parts, costs fractions of a penny to make, and sees as dimly as a short-sighted worm. Doesn't exactly sound like a game changer—but it is.

Cornell scientists have achieved the breakthrough by producing what's called a Planar Fourier Capture Array camera from a super-cheap material, doped silicon, that's currently used in all sorts of chip technology. It's just one-hundredth of a millimeter deep and a half a millimeter on each side, which means several of them could fit on the head of a pin. The magical aspect of the cam is that it doesn't need a lens because it makes use of the wave-like properties of light to work out what it's looking at, and all the image construction is done by algorithms in a computer later.

The camera can only see about 20 pixels on a side—check out the image to see how the camera views the Mona Lisa. Despite its limitations, its utility is impressive. It starts with the fact it's so tiny and has no moving parts, which means it could be integrated almost anywhere in a gadget, and will fit into gadgets of any size. It's super-cheap, which means it could find elegant and surprising uses in situations you may not expect. And its dim vision powers could actually change the capabilities of almost anything you integrate it into.

Cornell's research was intended to develop an imaging system for implanting near a living brain to detect light from specially engineered neurons—enabling all sorts of extraordinary neural science. And that's still a use it could be put to. But how about an array of the camera sensors being used in a very small endoscope, letting medics peep inside the body with only the most minimal of invasions? What about a scalpel blade that can image the tissue it's cutting through? How about a tiny in-body medical robot that needs very basic imaging for navigation?

The camera is so simple it could be built into the fingertips of android robots to help them work out how to best hold an object, or even to aid with object recognition. Sensor arrays on buildings could use the camera to work out the angle of the sun, removing the need for more expensive timing units. Dozens of the devices could be integrated into the screen of a smartphone, to act as a lens-less webcam, or even a more sophisticated touch recognition system. Vacuum-cleaner robots could benefit from multiple camera angles to help them navigate and find every grubby corner of your home to clean.

The potential applications are almost as limitless as the number of ways we use LEDs nowadays—most of which wouldn't have occurred to the device's inventors.

[Image: Flickr user robboudon]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

Add New Comment


  • Sam Duck

    Now, I know this may not be the choice of many, but I give comments in all arenas of life, bar none, that then shall be my dis' claimer.

    Postee Notee: Just as God is 'all seeing', 'all knowing'
    and 'Omniscient, and 'Omnipresent, so satan becomes the great imitator, but is
    limited in the 'air' or better, 'airwaves' or 'electronic/electrical' movement
    by cable, utility lines, underground, and satellite. In the malls across the
    World, by 'FOrbAN' ( Feed Orbit Attached News, the info lines of news, weather,
    fame, links below the ceiling which travel around the mall courts and inner
    pathways to stores)

    There are two verses spoken by Christ that has regulated
    just what satan could do, after the advent of the cross, the first is in John 12
    -"Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be
    cast out."The 'prince' often mistaken by the 'dominion theologists-kingdom
    now' crowds (which are also setting up the NWO (New World Order) of the EU
    (European Union) as they have incorrectly identified the 'prince' of Daniel 9
    (small 'p') with that of the Messiah the Prince (capital 'P'), that same
    'prince' was removed from the earth, temporarily, after the Resurrection of
    Jesus Christ, but will make his return debut as in Revelation12 and that of John
    14 -"Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world
    cometh, and hath nothing in me.""And the great dragon was cast out, that old
    serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the
    whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out
    with him."

    Amazing how technology, only seemed to have developed after the advent of the Area 51 (UFO sighting?) misadventure, makes one think, perhaps we are entertaining those from the Mars arena?

  • Les Nestman

    Good Knight George, All this And Ya Think Ya Could've Stayed In Touch....

  • George Moses

    And of course, the government can now peer into every aspect of our lives.

  • Alex Ingram

    Gee George. I think  that's a bit naive for a technical board. Pretty safe to say the Federal Government of the United States (And other countries) have "been" peering into every aspect of your life. The un-warranted intrusions violate your rights under the Constitution, but due to the Homeland Protection Act, your privacy comes second to national security. Expect this pervasive trend to continue, despite rulings by the Supreme Court that the Executive Brancis is in  need of judicial over-site. This new potential techknology will have legitimate and dark illegitamate applications in both the government and privare sectors. :)