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May 2, 2013

New camera inspired by insect eyes

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So Rogers and his team embedded the artificial ommatidia in a flexible rubber sheet and wired them together with stretchable silicon circuits. The researchers then inflated the sheet like a balloon until it reached the optimum curvature. The lenses are also made of rubber. "We moved completely away from glass optics," Rogers says, making even smaller ommatidia a possibility. The camera is about a centimeter in diameter, smaller than a penny.

Rogers and his students tested the camera with high-contrast images of soccer balls and, appropriately, the Chinese character for "eye." Images from the device are found in the team's paper online Wednesday in Nature. The camera boasts a 160° field of view, although 180° would be better. The resolution isn't as high as on smart phones, but the blurry images are recognizable. Shapes placed near the edges of the camera's field of view appear as if right next to each other, with no stretching or other distortion.

A wide-angle, compact camera would be ideal for a high-flying, motion-sensing surveillance drone or a miniature, snakelike endoscopic medical device, Rogers says. Next, the team will tinker with the radius and curvature of the flexible ommatidia array to see what other optical feats the camera is capable of.

Pease calls Rogers's work a "terrific tour de force of nonconventional microfabrication." Still, Rogers admits limitations of size and technical sophistication because his current manufacturing facilities are limited. "We're in an academic environment," Rogers says, "not in a digital camera manufacturing world."

This is adapted from ScienceNOW, the online daily news service of the journal Science. http://news.sciencemag.org

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