Stanford open-source "Frankencamera" could revolutionize photography

Oct. 2, 2009
Stanford University (Stanford, CA) scientists say they are out to reinvent digital photography with the introduction of an open-source digital camera that will give programmers around the world the chance to create software that will teach cameras new tricks, meaning camera performance will no longer be limited by the software that comes pre-installed by the manufacturer.

Stanford University (Stanford, CA) scientists say they are out to reinvent digital photography with the introduction of an open-source digital camera that will give programmers around the world the chance to create software that will teach cameras new tricks, meaning camera performance will no longer be limited by the software that comes pre-installed by the manufacturer.

Virtually all the features of the Stanford camera (dubbed Frankencamera)focus, exposure, shutter speed, flashare at the command of software that can be created by inspired programmers anywhere. "The premise of the project is to build a camera that is open source," said computer science professor Marc Levoy. Stanford imagines a future where consumers download applications to their open-platform cameras the way Apple apps are downloaded to iPhones today.

When the camera's operating software is made available publicly, perhaps a year from now, users will be able to continuously improve it, along with the open-source model of the Linux operating system for computers or the Mozilla Firefox web browser. From there, the sky's the limit; programmers will have the freedom to experiment with new ways of tuning the camera's response to light and motion, adding their own algorithms to process the raw images in innovative ways.

Levoy's plan is to develop and manufacture the "Frankencamera" as a platform that will first be available at minimal cost to fellow computational photography researchers. In the young field of computational photography, which Levoy helped establish, researchers use optics benches, imaging chips, computers and software to develop techniques and algorithms to enhance and extend photography. This work, however, is bound to the lab. Frankencamera would give researchers the means to take their experiments into the studios, the landscapes, and the stadiums.

For example, among the most mature ideas in the field of computational photography is the idea of extending a camera's "dynamic range," or its ability to handle a wide range of lighting in a single frame. The process of high-dynamic-range imaging is to capture pictures of the same scene with different exposures and then to combine them into a composite image in which every pixel is optimally lit. Until now, this trick could be done only with images in computers. Levoy wants cameras to do this right at the scene, on demand. Although the algorithms are very well understood, no commercial cameras do this today. But Frankencamera does.

To create an open-source camera, Levoy and the group cobbled together a number of different parts: the motherboard is a Texas Instruments 'system on a chip' running Linux with image and general processors and a small LCD screen. The imaging chip is taken from a Nokia N95 cell phone, and the lenses are off-the-shelf Canon lenses, but they are combined with actuators to give the camera its fine-tuned software control. The body is custom made at Stanford. The project has benefited from the support of Nokia, Adobe Systems, Kodak, and Hewlett-Packard.

Within about a year, after the camera is developed to his satisfaction, Levoy hopes to have to have the funding and the arrangements in place for an outside manufacturer to produce them in quantity, ideally for less than $1,000. Levoy would then provide them at cost to colleagues and their students at other universities.

For more information, go to news.stanford.edu.

About the Author

Gail Overton | Senior Editor (2004-2020)

Gail has more than 30 years of engineering, marketing, product management, and editorial experience in the photonics and optical communications industry. Before joining the staff at Laser Focus World in 2004, she held many product management and product marketing roles in the fiber-optics industry, most notably at Hughes (El Segundo, CA), GTE Labs (Waltham, MA), Corning (Corning, NY), Photon Kinetics (Beaverton, OR), and Newport Corporation (Irvine, CA). During her marketing career, Gail published articles in WDM Solutions and Sensors magazine and traveled internationally to conduct product and sales training. Gail received her BS degree in physics, with an emphasis in optics, from San Diego State University in San Diego, CA in May 1986.

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