The University of Michigan is developing a camera that can record 3D images and videos, and they have received $1.2 million of funds from the W.M Keck Foundation to do so. Compared with the existing 3D cameras that we have now, this camera is a bit smaller but can achieve higher resolutions. And while 3D films are currently being filmed using multiple cameras to reconstruct each frame, the new camera can record 3D on its own.

One-shot 3D cameras available now rely on a micro-lens array to divert the light after it has been focused by the main lens. This array of smaller lenses essentially tears up the picture to recover the directional information from the rays of light, and then the camera's software reconstructs the image along with the depth information.

"When the light hits the detector inside a camera, it can come from different directions, and this spatial information can be used to reconstruct 3D images," said Zhaohui Zhong, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

"Normally, that information is lost because the detector only measures intensity," he added, which is why 3D images made with traditional recording methods must be constructed from multiple shots.

 New and improved camera design
Prof. Zhaohui Zhong / University of Michigan by Catharine June

Zhong and his colleagues Theodore Norris and Jeffrey Fessler, both professors of electrical engineering and computer science, will be in charge of the camera's design. 

The camera will record light as it passes through a series of transparent light detectors.

"The microlens approach involves an inherent trade-off between resolution and the ability to refocus or resolve depth," Norris said. "Our stack approach enables more information to be acquired without losing image resolution."

The researchers believe that this method will work because objects at different distances from the lens will come into focus at different points inside the camera. Objects will appear brighter where they are most in focus. This way, the computer can easily reconstruct the images, making the processing much faster for producing high speed and high resolution video.

Challenges in the design

Of course, the team stumbled into challenges. They need to make transparent light detectors, and they are considering using graphene. This material can be molded into a highly sensitive detector that will allow maximum light to pass through.

"Ordinarily, you want the light detector to absorb as much light as possible for high sensitivity, to produce a clearer picture," Zhong said. "Graphene detectors can offer very high sensitivity, so you don't really sacrifice the clarity by making them transparent."

The team is considering an SLR-sized camera to begin with, but Norris thinks it may be possible to squeeze 3D-camera capability into a smartphone.

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