Feb 18, 2016 | By Kira

Today, we expect our smartphones to be a bit of everything: we make calls, send text messages, take pictures, watch videos, make videos, follow the stock market, and much, much more. We’re no longer happy with tech devices that do just one thing—so why should our cameras be any different? Cambits, a modular camera system developed at Columbia University, responds precisely to that demand.

Cambits is a reconfigurable camera system composed of colourful, 3D printed blocks that lets you ‘build’ a range of cameras with a variety of impressive computational capabilities. Users can go from taking HDR imagery, to capturing panoramic scenes for virtual reality, to using it as fully assembled microscope, all in just a few snaps.

The Cambits system consists of a set of 3D printed blocks in five different colors, each representing a different type: white for base, red for sensor, blue for flash, green for actuator and yellow for lens (orange and purple are special optical attachments).

If the blocks look like kids toys, that’s because they’re almost as easy to use: building your own camera is as simple as snapping different configurations of these blocks together. Each block is attached through magnets, so no screws or cables are needed; and once attached, the blocks automatically electrically connect through spring-loaded pins. These pins carry the power from the host computer (which can be a desktop, tablet, or smartphone), as well as data and control signals.

Each block is outfitted with a specific ID, so the host computer instantly recognizes which configuration you’re after, and provides a menu of options with the appropriate controls. Cambits is also scalable, meaning you can add blocks as you go, and you can use anywhere from three to six blocks at a time depending on your needs.

Cambits was developed by Columbia University Computer Science Professor Shree Nayar and Makoto Odamaki, a visiting scientist from Ricoh Corporation, over a period of two years. A key feature of the system is its circuit board, designed by Odamaki himself. This circuit board sits inside each and every 3D printed block, and includes a microcontroller, upstream interface and downstream interface. Thus, each block can provide power downstream, receive data upstream, and convey control signals each way.

“We wanted to redefine what we mean by a camera,” said Nayar, the T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science at Columbia Engineering and a pioneer in the field of computational imaging. “Traditional cameras are really like black boxes that take one type of image. We wanted to rethink the instrument, to come up with a hardware and software system that is modular, reconfigurable, and able to capture all kinds of images. We see Cambits as a wonderful way to unleash the creativity in all of us.”

To give users an idea of just how versatile Cambits is, Columbia Engineering put together the short video below to show off the various functionalities, which include high dynamic range imaging, panoramic imaging, refocusing, light field imaging, depth imaging using stereo, kaleidoscopic imaging and even microscopy.

For example, you could start with the base, a sensor block, and an 8mm lens to capture standard HDR images, or move the sensor around to put together a scene collage. Next up, replace the 8mm lens with one driven by a linear actuary in order to capture a focal stack of the scene. A refocusing algorithm can later be used to control the depth of field after the scene has been captured.

Placing a rotary actuator between the base and sensor allows the camera to scan a panorama picture. This same data can then be used to generate a stereo panorama for VR. And finally, top it off with the purple optical attachment, and you’ve got a fully functional microscope! Those are just a few examples of configurations, and they were all assembled within minutes.

Two rotary acturators placed between the sensor and the base can create a two-degree-of-freedom pan-tilt camera system

The lens array attachment produces multiple views of the scene

One of the most anticipated tech products currently in development is Google’s Project Ara, an open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. In today’s era of personalization and individuality, consumers are increasingly demanding more power on their end: the power to choose not only which software or apps they prefer, but to physically modify their device’s features on a whim. Cambits’ modular camera system is the perfect example of how these same concepts will soon be applied to much more than just furniture or smartphones, but potentially to all of our future tech devices.

“There are so many exciting advances in computational photography these days,” concluded Nayar. “We hope this reconfigurable system will open the door to new avenues of creativity, bringing new dimensions to an art form we all enjoy.” Odamaki and Nayar are currently looking to partner with a manufacturer to commercialize Cambits and bring this modular camera concept to the market.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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