Frankencamera: Digital cameras get the open source treatment
By Darren Quick
September 4, 2009
Open-source started with the Netscape Navigator browser and has expanded to include operating systems for PCs (Linux) and mobile phones (Android). Now photo scientists at Stanford University are out to bring the advantages of open-source development to digital photography with the creation of an open-source digital camera giving programmers around the world the chance to create software that will teach cameras new tricks.
The team of photo scientists believe that if the technology catches on it will free camera performance from the constraints imposed by the manufacturers. The Stanford camera allows virtually all of its features – focus, exposure, shutter speed, flash, etc. – to be controlled by software that can be created by programmers. This will allow them to experiment with new ways of tuning the camera’s response to light and motion, or let them add their own algorithms to process the raw images in innovative ways.
The open-source camera was cobbled together from a number of different parts, which has led to the team dubbing it the ‘Frankencamera’. The motherboard, per se, 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.
When the camera’s operating software is made available publicly, users will be able to continuously improve it, along the open-source model of the Linux operating system and Mozilla Firefox web browser. The Stanford team even imagines a future where consumers download applications to their open-platform cameras the way apps are downloaded to iPhones today.
Stanford University computer science professor Marc Levoy plans to develop and manufacture the Frankencamera as a platform that will first be made available at minimal cost to fellow computational photography researchers. Computational photography is a relatively new field of photography, which Levoy helped establish, where researchers use optics benches, imaging chips, computers and software to develop techniques and algorithms to enhance and extend photography.
The output of these techniques is an ordinary photograph, but one that could not have been taken by a traditional camera. It is also bound to the lab, but the Frankencamera would give researchers the means to take their experiments into the studios, the landscapes, and the stadiums.
Already the Frankencamera can do things no commercial cameras can. To extend the camera’s dynamic range it can 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, but Levoy’s camera does it right at the scene, on demand.
Another algorithm that researchers have achieved in the lab, but no commercial camera allows, is enhancing the resolution of videos with high-resolution still photographs. While a camera is gathering low-resolution video at 30 frames a second, it could also periodically take a high-resolution still image. The extra information in the still could then be recombined by an algorithm into each video frame. Levoy and his students plan to implement that on Frankencamera, too.
"Some cameras have software development kits that let you hook up a camera with a USB cable and tell it to set the exposure to this, the shutter speed to that, and take a picture, but that’s not what we’re talking about," says Levoy. "What we’re talking about is, tell it what to do on the next microsecond in a metering algorithm or an autofocusing algorithm, or fire the flash, focus a little differently and then fire the flash again — things you can’t program a commercial camera to do," says Levoy.
The camera's operating software is not likely to be made publicly available for around a year, after the camera is developed to Levoy’s satisfaction. By then he also hopes to have the funding and the arrangements in place for an outside manufacturer to produce them in quantity, ideally for less than USD$1,000. Levoy then plans to provide them at cost to colleagues and their students at other universities.
Check out the vid below to see what the Frankencamera can do.
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