Throwable Panoramic Ball Camera

Taking pictures is about to get a lot more fun if computer engineer Jonas Pfeil and his colleagues have anything to say about it. A recent graduate from the Technical University of Berlin, Pfeil and his team designed and built a working prototype "ball" camera- a foam-studded sphere (about 8 inches in diameter) peppered with 36 tiny 2-megapixel cell phone cameras. Throw it in the air and it captures an image at the top of the ball's trajectory. Talk about redefining photography- one day, snapping pics may give way to "tossing" them.

Panoramic images, with their large width to height ratio, are appealing because they better approximate the way we humans view the world. But capturing them typically requires a tripod, several camera positions and lots of stitching together. Pfeil's invention eliminates all that since the component images are captured simultaneously. That's especially handy since it also freezes moving objects that might otherwise blur or shift during the image-gathering process.

To view the roughly 72-megapixel images from the ballcam, the data is downloaded via USB port into a spherical panoramic viewer which will ship with the camera. The resulting images look similar to those on Google's Street View and can be similarly panned and zoomed to examine all the captured details.

The multi-faceted housing that holds the ball-cam together was fabricated with a 3D printer. Aside from the 36 STMicroelectronics quarter-inch CMOS camera modules, the well-padded interior also houses an accelerometer (to gauge toss acceleration an d maximum height) and two Atmel microcontrollers to sync up and control all the cameras. Most of the components are fairly inexpensive, so while there's no price point yet, it's likely to be competitive with mid-range digital point-and-shoots.

"We used the camera to capture full spherical panoramas at scenic spots, in a crowded city square and in the middle of a group of people taking turns in throwing the camera," says Pfeil.

The team plans to demo their patent-pending new camera this December at SIGGRAPH Asia 2011, and it's sure to cause a stir. Hopefully it'll generate a marketing deal, too, because, as Pfeil notes, "above all we found that it is a very enjoyable, playful way to take pictures."

The video below shows both the ball-cam in action and some of its images: