Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Age of Intelligent Cameras

The abilities to capture light and display a moment of time has come a long way since the camera obscura was discovered by Ibn al-Haytham around 1000 CE. The technology has gone through much iteration from the ability to display a scene with a pinhole camera to permanently recording the scene to be viewed later. Most recently, and after a century of using film and chemicals to process images inside of a dark room, we have moved the technology forward into the 21st century through the advent of digital photography. Just over the past few years camera companies have begun to fully utilize the power of computer hardware and software. The age-old technology of picture taking is going to take another grand step. It seems the law of accelerating returns is working well in the camera world.

In the past, filtering and general image modification was performed on the computer sitting on your desk long after the photo was taken. Software such as Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro had opened up a completely new world to photographers and digital artists but that was pretty much it for major advancements for many years. The hardware and software of the camera itself has remained mostly the same except for changes in interfaces, the ability to capture images at an increasingly higher quality and the ever-shrinking device. This is changing though and we are going to see some great new technologies over the next several years.

The newest Sony Cybershot H50 has the ability, as do other new cameras, to recognize the faces of people in the shot and focus on all of them to make for a great group photo. The camera also has the ability to detect a smile and wait until then to snap the photo. The ability of this camera to recognize faces is one-step away from being able to learn whose faces it is recognizing and storing that information within the file so you can later search your digital image archive for people and possibly for objects in the scene. Not only will they be able to do this in the near future, but they will be able to digitally read text within the scene and store it for searching on later as well.

Cameras are even coming with the ability to communicate with GPS devices so that you can geo reference your photos and overlay the information on top of a digital map such as Google maps. This means you can now store within the EXIF data the four dimensions along with technical information of the photograph itself. What's coming next? Automatic temperature and general weather information stored with the photo along with a description of the atmosphere? Counting how many people are in the picture and what they are wearing?

The camera of the future won't just be taking pictures of the scene in front of it; it will also be taking snapshots of your iris and embedding that information within the picture itself. Canon has a patent for a camera "add-on" that gives the camera the ability to tag photographs with this biometric information to later identify the photographer. According to Canon, the camera would be able to identify multiple users of a single camera.

With the speed of processors and software, cameras are gaining some wonderful abilities such as rapid picture taking without blurring as well as the ability to capture the scene with multiple settings to allow you more control over the finished product. One of the neatest abilities that are in the works is the "multiple focus" capabilities that are being looked into. Cameras of the near future will "auto focus" on multiple points when they take a picture so that you can later "move through" the focus to fine tune the depth of field of the image after the act of taking it. Images will no longer be "flat"; they will have multiple layers built within them to give even more power in the post production process. Another such technique developed by Adobe is a series of lenses, much like the eye of a fly, that capture multiple angles of a scene giving the image depth of field as well as the ability to change angles after the image is taken. These multiple angles then can be managed within Photo Shop to further manipulate the focus of different elements within the image through the use of a "3d" brush. See the video below for a demo of the new Adobe lens.

All these current and future technologies will further "dumb down" photography making it easier and easier for the everyday armchair photographer the ability to take remarkable photographs. This will come at the ire of hardcore photographers who insist that theirs is an art that only they can perform. Now if cameras can learn aesthetic rules such as the rule of thirds and beep at you when you are taking a picture that is not framed just right then we will truly have the ability for every man, women and child to take great photographs. No more "chopping of heads" and pictures of feet....you will have to set the camera to manual if you want to do that.

Further Reading:
Sony Cybershot H50
Adobe "Computational Photography"


Bradley said...

I enjoyed your reference to Ibn al-Haytham in your essay. As you point out, he was the first person to devise and explain the principles of the camera obscura. What is interesting is that he created the device to test his hypothesis that "lights and colors do not blend in the air." Using pinhole technology, he "forced" light rays to intersect at an aperture and recorded the results in his massive study of light and vision, Kitāb al-Manāzir (Book of Optics). As the first person to systematically test hypotheses with experiments, Ibn al-Haytham deserves recognition not only as the “father of optics” but also as the first scientist. If your readers would like to know more about him, I would like to recommend my new book, Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist. Written for young adults, it is the world's first full biography of the eleventh-century Muslim scholar known in the West as Alhazen or Alhacen.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of science that came out of the Middle East. Engineering (mainly dealing with water wheels and the use of water as a power source) and a lot of mathematics and astronomy knowledge as well is traceable back to the civilizations of the region. We have large amounts of "un-discovered" history to be found in the Middle East and India. Civilizations were thriving in these regions while in other parts of the world people were still living in small groups.