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360-degree Camera!

Part 3

How the New Camera Works

Axisymmetric free-form-surface lens

Axisymmetric free-form-surface lens

Axisymmetric free-form-surface lens

A camera uses lenses to collect and concentrate the reflected light in a single spot and record it as a photograph. There are different kinds of lenses, including concave (inward-curving) and convex (outward-curving) lenses. Different combinations of these are used to make bigger lenses for particular purposes, such as telephoto lenses that can capture images from far away, or wide-angle lenses for taking pictures of a large area all at once. One type of wide-angle lens, called a fisheye lens, takes in a very wide view. But even the best fisheyes can only cover about 180 degrees.

The design of the new lens was inspired by a new approach. The breakthrough result is a new kind of lens that combines the functions of lenses with the function of the prisms used in normal cameras to change the direction of light so that it can reflect light from 360 degrees and capture it in a single photograph.

Known as an "axisymmetric free-form-surface lens," the new lens is shaped like a spinning top. It has a diameter of about six centimeters. Light enters the upper part of the lens from all directions, capturing the light reflecting off all the objects in the surrounding area: houses, buildings, and so on, through 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. The light passes through the lens until it reaches the bottom of the "spinning top" (1). The bottom of the lens has a special surface that acts like a prism, reflecting the light back to the top of the lens (2). The light reflects again (2), and passes through the lens to form a photograph.

(Updated in October 2010)