When I saw the enormous contraption—two people had rigged a camera about the size of a banker's box with wires and cables extending from the back— at the corner of Corcoran and Main streets this morning, I immediately thought, "surveillance." NSA. Google Street View. A spy satellite fallen to Earth.
But it was none of the above (supposedly). Instead Aqueti, a new company founded by Duke electrical engineering professor David Brady, was testing a camera that produces panoramic, high-resolution digital images and streaming video. Scott McCain and Susan Prochnow were shooting the buildings at the corner to build a portfolio of images downtown. The thought is people could then embark on an interactive tour of downtown Durham online with picture quality and detail not possible with conventional cameras.
The scare owl on top of the Mechanics & Farmers Bank? You ostensibly could see the ruffle in its plastic feathers. The flowers in the second-floor window of the Generations Community Credit Union? Count the petals.
Prochnow told me they recently took panoramic shots of a Duke basketball game, including the crowd. If those images were uploaded online, you could find yourself among the mass of blue and even crop the image to show just you and your friends.
McCain, who studied photonics in graduate school at Duke, built the camera. Its lens is a sphere, like a crystal ball, and behind it, a series of micro cameras that each grabs part of the curved image and sends it to a sensor. The chip then flattens it for viewing. The file sizes are quite large, but can be compressed.
The current setup is cumbersome, and reminded me of a high-tech version of the 19th-century large-format wooden cameras that required the photographer to shade the viewfinder (and himself or herself) with a hood. In addition to the camera, the two are packing around a industrial-strength tripod, a car battery and a laptop computer. Yet McCain envisions the next generation of the camera to be the size of a Canon DSLR, and at about the same price: $2,000.