Stanford team develops open source ‘Frankencamera’

Stanford photo scientists are releasing an open-source digital camera designed to allow programmers to teach cameras new tricks.

If the technology catches on – and it’s a big if – camera performance need not be limited by manufacturers’ preinstalled software. Virtually all the features of the Stanford camera – such as focus, exposure, shutter speed and flash – can be software-controlled by programmers anywhere.

The plan is to make the Frankencamera available at minimal cost to computational photography researchers. Consumers could download applications to open-platform cameras the way Apple apps are downloaded to iPhones today. When the camera’s operating software is made available publicly – perhaps a year from now – users will be able to improve it, along the open-source model of Linux or Firefox.

“Some cameras have software development kits that let you hook up a camera with a USB cable and tell it to set the exposure to this, the shutter speed to that, and take a picture, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” says Stanford professor Marc Levoy. “What we’re talking about is: tell it what to do on the next microsecond in a metering algorithm or an autofocusing algorithm, or fire the flash, focus a little differently and then fire the flash again — things you can’t program a commercial camera to do.”

To create the camera, Levoy and the group cobbled together a number of different parts. The motherboard is a Texas Instruments “system on a chip” running Linux with image and general processors and a small LCD screen. The imaging chip is taken from a Nokia N95 cellphone, and the lenses are off-the-shelf Canon lenses, combined with actuators to give the camera its fine-tuned software control.

Within about a year, Levoy hopes to have to have the funding and the arrangements in place for an outside manufacturer to produce them in quantity, ideally for less than $1,000. Levoy would then provide them at cost to colleagues and students at other universities.