This flexible sheet camera could turn any surface into a camera

Okay everyone, say 'please don't let this thing snap!'

When you’re taking photos of a large group of people or a particularly busy cityscape, it can be frustrating trying to fit everyone or everything in. It would be so much easier if you could expand the camera’s field of view just by bending it towards you slightly. But that’s impossible, right? Well, not according to researchers at Columbia University’s Computer Vision Lab where they’ve been working on developing a flexible ‘sheet camera’.

The aim of the researchers is to develop a way of capturing images from unconventional fields of view rather than from a single point in space and the way they’re doing this is by working on an image-capturing sheet that could be flexed at will or even wrapped around objects. If these cameras could be produced at a low cost, like a roll of plastic sheet, the researchers think that “they can be used to image the world in ways that would be difficult to achieve using one or more conventional cameras.”

They say their camera where one side of the sheet is a display and the other captures the images could be wrapped around cars to cover drivers’ blind spots, carried in our purses like a credit card, or wrapped around an object like a lamp post to provide 360 degree video.

One of the biggest challenges the researchers faced in capturing these flexible images was that when using an array of lenses with a fixed focal length, they found that bending the lenses would cause gaps to form in the fields of view leading to missing visuals in the final image. To overcome this, they created an elastic lens array on flexible plastic which was able to adapt its focal length as it was bent allowing the sheet camera to capture whole rather than fragmented images.

Right now, the sheet camera is only in the prototype phase but it is successful as a proof of concept as the researchers have managed to vary field of view and capture whole images using the flexible lens array. The next step in the research is to work on capturing higher resolution images because at the moment they are far from it.

Flexible sheet cameras sound like an extremely cool idea with many useful applications and advantages over the single-point view of current camera and we can’t wait to see where the research goes next.

Images: Columbia University