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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 3

Designing Cameras That Work Like Eyes

To improve photography, engineers are designing cameras that behave more like eyes

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In a clearing in a subtropical rain forest in northern Australia, you can watch the light dance as it filters through the rustling canopy. Below, the leaves of the bushes form an intricate pattern of shadows on the trunks of trees. A wallaby grazes in the open space. You raise your smartphone and aim it at the tranquil marsupial. Just as you tap the button to take its picture, the wallaby notices you and hops away. In the image on your screen, half of the snapshot is too dark to make out details, and the sky between the treetops looks bleached white. The hopping wallaby is a blurry, small blob near the center of the photograph. Zooming in on the animal exposes an almost Cubist field of pixels, his outline visibly broken up into the smallest squares of the camera's sensor.

For any of us who snap photos, whether with a tap of the screen or by holding up a professional-grade piece of equipment, the experience described above—if perhaps not the wallaby—will be a familiar one. The proliferation of smartphones has turned nearly all of us into amateur shutterbugs. According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than half of all U.S. Internet users post original photos online. Instagram, the popular sharing service, reports that some 55 million pictures are posted to its network daily—that's 38,000 a minute. Yet not a single one of those millions on millions of images comes anywhere close to capturing the vivid, rich world we experience with our eyes.

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