When a small team of researchers recently wheeled a supercamera up to the edge of a bay at Mason Neck State Park in Northern Virginia, there was no need to point the camera at anything specific.
That's because this camera could see everything we could see, only better.
The Duke University researchers agreed to meet with NPR and show off the latest prototype of their gigapixel camera. It looks like a big black box, the size of a minifridge, and it's about 25 times more powerful than a top-notch digital camera you could buy in a store. It can take images composed of more than a billion pixels.
"To give you an idea of the scale of these images, if you were to print out a photograph-quality print of this image, it [would be] about 20 feet long and probably 10 [or] 12 feet tall," says Steve Feller, project manager for the AWARE camera program.
Most people have switched from film cameras to digital ones in recent years. But our idea of a photograph hasn't changed much. It's still something you might print out and hang on the wall or put in an album.
This technology could change that. It can record a scene in such astonishing detail that you have to zoom down into the photo and explore it like a virtual world in order to see it all.
In the past, people have made gigapixel images of places like Paris or Mount Everest. But these typically are composites of hundreds of photos taken one after another and then stitched together.
The problem is, that approach can't capture an instant in time; this camera can.
Feller points to a crystal ball at the front. That's the main lens. Many tiny cameras are arranged behind it.
"Basically it's an aggregate of 158 smaller cameras that work together to make one really big image," he explains.
A researcher named Zachary Phillips looks at a laptop computer set up on top of the black box. On the screen is a small version of the scene we're looking at, broken up into little circles that represent the view of each microcamera. This is effectively the camera's viewfinder.
Phillips zooms in to show the grain in the wood of a nearby fence post, and then we click on another circle and zoom in to see a house across the bay.
Since this is still a prototype, he opens another computer program to take the photo — "3, 2, 1," he says, pressing a key. "There it goes."
When he hits the keyboard, all the microcameras snap at once — capturing everything happening in front of us at that moment.
This gigapixel camera is the brainchild of David Brady, a professor at Duke who wants to push photography as far as the physics will allow.
"This camera is kind of a culmination of many years of work," Brady says, "where our challenge has always been, 'What is the maximum amount of information we can measure with light?' "
He has plans for even more powerful versions of this camera that can capture up to 50 gigapixels.
The research was funded by the Department of Defense, which has an obvious interest in looking in high detail in all directions at once. But Brady thinks it could transform all kinds of photography.
His team has photographed Duke University football games, for example, creating photos that let you zoom in and see the ball in the air, plus the faces of all the players in the field, and the faces of all the fans in the stands.
"I can't imagine ... how people are going to use these things," Brady says, "and, of course, since I'm an instrument builder, that's the real interest. Because I'm sure photographers will use it in ways that I haven't even thought of."
The work has impressed other experts on gigapixel images, like Illah Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon University. "In any case where you have a fast-moving world, like a sporting game, that idea of massively imaging everything simultaneously is very important," says Nourbakhsh.
He says people won't be taking gigapixel images as often as everyday snapshots. They'll use it for special occasions. A normal camera would be fine for photographing the expression of a movie star who won an Oscar at the Academy Awards, for example, but a gigapixel camera could capture the reaction of every celebrity in the audience.
"These pictures are not really like a picture. They're kind of like an entire website," says Nourbakhsh. "They're like an image-based reference into things that you care about. And that image, or spatial way of referring to things, is powerful, because our body is designed to understand things visually."
He says people have gotten used to the idea of exploring detailed virtual worlds in video games; this kind of technology could let them have the same kind of experience with images from the real world.