A new bending camera captures images on a flexible sheet. The innovative technique suggests a future of cameras as thin as paper and as pliable as cloth.

To get to a viable “flexible camera” concept, researchers at Columbia University had to ditch the traditional way of thinking about lenses. Normal lenses placed over a transforming surface leave large gaps that don’t reflect light, creating holes in the final image. So the team designed lenses that can deform and adjust focal length without sacrificing acuity.

“Cameras today capture the world from essentially a single point in space,” Shree K. Nayar, professor of computer science at Columbia University told TechXplore. “While the camera industry has made remarkable progress in shrinking the camera to a tiny device with ever increasing imaging quality, we are exploring a radically different approach to imaging. We believe there are numerous applications for cameras that are large in format but very thin and highly flexible.”

A concept video showing the flexible sheet camera taking the form of a personal camera.

These adjustable lenses could one day fit around the bumper of a car to improve imaging on an autonomous vehicle. Or they could wrap around a telephone pole to provide easy 360-degree surveillance, which is impressive if a little sketchy. And personal cameras could look like business cards, stretching to take in a wider field of view and fitting safely in a wallet.

With the lens technology moving forward, the team still needs to develop a digital camera sensor that can function similarly to make the dream of flexible cameras a reality.

“The next step will be to develop large-format detector arrays to go with the deformable lens array,” Nayar said. “The amalgamation of the two technologies will lay the foundation for a new class of cameras that expand the range of applications that benefit from imaging.”

The flexible view may really boost the quality of those tough wide-angle landscape shots. No more settling for a single slice, you can capture the whole pie.

Photos via Columbia Engineering / YouTube, D.C. Sims, Y. Yue and S.K. Nayar,