The incredible wide-angle camera inspired by a bug's eye

Insects see brilliantly through thousands of tiny lenses in "compound eyes." Researchers have built a camera using the same principle. Killer panoramas. Good for spying and seeing up your nose too.

If Ansel Adams had one of these, Yosemite might have looked even better.


Insects such as bees and flies see brilliantly through thousands of lenses in their "compound eyes."

Wouldn't that technique make a good digital camera?

Yes it would, according to the arthropod-inspired researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Writing in Nature, they say they've developed a digital camera with 180 tiny lenses that broadens a camera's field of vision to 160 degrees - practically the entire panorama in front of a photographer. Now that's a wide-angle camera.

The prototype has an "immense" depth of field - the portion of a photograph that is in focus - the BBC reports, noting, however, that it does not yet deliver high resolution because the pixel count is low.

The 180 lenses sure outnumber the single lens that defines digital photography today. But this technology ain't seen nothing yet. A fly can have about 28,000 small eyes, and "that's the direction we want to move in," team researcher Jianliang Xiao from the University of Colorado told the BBC.

For those of you who know your bug eyes, lead researcher John Rogers put it this way for Wired: "The resolution is roughly equivalent to that of a fire ant or a bark beetle ... We feel that it is possible to get to the level of a dragonfly or beyond."

Wow. Vision beyond a dragonfly's! But what good will that do, besides wide-angle phototgraphy? Scientists from Germany's Max-Planck-Institute imagine disaster relief applications, not necessarily as image takers. For instance, they say the lenses could help a micro aerial vehicle see and navigate its way through a collapsed building while using other sensors to detect trapped people.

Illinois' Rogers says they could be used in surveillance cameras and also in surgical endoscopes. Imagine a fly's eye up your, er, nose. The photography community is abuzz.

Photo of male striped horse fly from Thomas Shahan via Wikimedia

The eyes have it on SmartPlanet:

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