360-Degree 3D Camera

For those who think 3D on a flat screen is bogus, how about this? Swiss university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is working on a camera that captures images in all directions at once—well, to be precise, all directions within a hemispherical pattern—and processes the resulting data to calculate the distance from the camera to each object in its visual field.

Inspired by the structure of a fly's eye, EPFL has built two prototypes—one with over 100 cameras in a shell the size of an orange (shown here) and the other with 15 cameras in a housing the size of a golf ball. In both cases, the cameras are similar to those found in cell phones.

Because the cameras are packed so tightly together, their individual visual fields overlap slightly, so one team at the school's Signal Processing Laboratory developed algorithms to assemble the images into a single view. That team also wrote the algorithms to calculate the distances between the camera and various objects in the visual field in order to create a 3D image. A second team at the Microelectronic Systems Laboratory developed the hardware that makes it possible to collect and process the gigabits of data streaming from the cameras, which use a frame rate of 30fps.

According to Professor Pierre Vandergheynst of the Signal Processing Laboratory, "With this invention, we solved two major problems with traditional cameras: the camera angle, which is no longer limited thanks to the camera's ability to film in 360 degrees and in real time; and the depth of field, which is no longer limiting thanks to the 3D reconstruction."

Here's a short video of Vandergheynst explaining the technology:

To get totally geeky for a moment, calling this a 360-degree camera is somewhat misleading. Yes, it captures images in a 360-degree field around the base of the camera, but it also captures images from above. A more precise label would be a 2π (2pi) camera, since it captures images within a solid angle of 2π steradians.

Of course, if the images from this camera were displayed on a flat screen, it would look like it was shot with a severe fish-eye lens, which you can see in a couple of shots in the video above. But I can imagine a planetarium-type dome on which the images could be projected, and viewers could look in any direction within the depicted environment. And with 3D glasses, this technology would start to approach the Star Trek holodeck! How cool is that?