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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Ball Camera Takes Spherical Panoramas

How many other cameras require you to throw them?

  • October 19, 2011

Panoramic images–typically stitched together by software, based on multiple exposures from a single camera–have grown quite popular in the age of the digital camera. Sites featuring 360-degree images abound online, and some even feature interactive panoramas in which you can pan up, down, and around. There’s something inherent in the idea of a panorama–the sweeping, comprehensive view–that impels the photographer to seek higher ground: even Eadweard Muybridge’s iconic 1878 panorama of San Francisco was taken from the top of Nob Hill.

You can almost draw a line from Muybridge’s yearning to a new device created by Jonas Pfeil, a computer engineer who studied at the Technical University of Berlin. Pfeil’s concept is remarkable: instead of manually twirling your single camera around and then stitching the pieces together, his “Throwable Panoramic Ball Camera” has 36 cameras embedded in it for simultaneous exposure. And in order to satisfy that impulse to get to higher ground, and to more fully capture the reality of a place, the ball is rigged so that if you toss it into the air, it will snap its pictures at the peak of its arc.

“When I was hiking on the beautiful island Tonga I captured a lot of panoramas by taking multiple photos and stitching them together on a PC,” Pfeil tells me in an e-mail. “When coming down from one of the mountains I realized how tedious this was and I thought about a better and faster way of creating panoramas. Then the idea of a ball thrown into the air came into my mind and I started making plans to realize it.”

A patent is pending on the device, which Pfeil and four collaborators intend to present at SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 in Hong Kong in December. The team says it uses 36 fixed-focus 2 megapixel mobile phone camera modules, which are mounted in a 3D-printed ball padded with foam. An accelerometer measures launch acceleration, from which the device can deduce when the ball will hit its highest point (barring a sudden upward or downward gust of wind, I suppose). “After catching the ball camera, pictures are downloaded in seconds using USB and automatically shown in our spherical panoramic viewer,” reports the team. “This lets users interactively explore a full representation of the captured environment.”

The project derives from Pfeil’s diploma thesis, which was titled “Throwable Camera Array for Capturing Spherical Panoramas.” ExtremeTech says the components are “very cheap,” and thinks it’s not out of the question to commercialize such a device at around $100. Pfeil et al. are currently looking for investment, per their site (and yes, they’ve heard of Kickstarter).

Just when you think photographic technology has more or less reached its endpoint, at least from a conceptual standpoint, people go out and dream up a device like this (or one that allows you to re-focus pictures after the fact, for that matter).

Does Pfeil at least have plans to rename the device something less cumbersome?

Not really, he tells me. “That seems to be the hardest part of the project… Usually I just call it ‘The Ball.’”

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