If you wanted to build a camera with an 180-degree range, and zero imperfections at any point in the view, you could try and design something yourself. Or you could do the sensible thing, and borrow from nature.
That’s what the researchers at the University of Illinois did. Rather than reinvent any wheels, they looked intensely into the eyes of bark beetles, and saw something they could copy.
The digital camera has the compound structure of an insect’s eye. It gets its all-around vision from dozens of individual light-sensitive cells spread over a rubbery surface. Each has its own lens, and the “bug eye” puffiness comes from the material being blown up lightly into a bulge.
Designed by a team led by John Rogers, at Urbana-Champaign, the researchers say the camera could be used to look into small spaces (it is only 1 centimeter, or 0.4 inches, in diameter) such as inside the body, or for surveillance.
The camera only does black-and-white at the moment. But Rogers told Nature magazine that color should be possible with the same design, and that the team wants to build much bigger cameras. The current one has 180 light-sensitive structures, called ommatidia. The next one, based on a dragonfly, could have up to 20,000.
If so, that’s likely to take pretty good photographs.