Spherical, throwable Explorer camera to land in 100 US police departments

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The Explorer will be used by 100 American police forces from July(Credit: Bounce Imaging)

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After showing the world a prototype throwable camera in 2012, Bounce Imaging is sending 100 of its Explorer cameras to police departments across the US. The Boston-based company originally conceived the idea of a throwable camera in an attempt to improve safety for first responders, but quickly gained interest from police departments whose personnel are often forced to jump headlong into potentially dangerous situations without a clear picture of what they'll face.

Sized similarly to a softball, the Explorer is designed to be thrown into dangerous environments and instantly send panoramic images to an Android or iOS mobile device, thereby giving them more information about any potential dangers that may lie ahead.

The Explorer contains one camera with six separate lenses, a setup chosen because of its lower cost and reduced complexity compared to fitting the ball with six separate cameras. The outer layer consists of a thick rubber shell which Bounce Imaging tests to military standard MIL-STD 810, dropping the device onto concrete 26 times from a height of 4 ft (1.2 m) and 26 times from a height of 7 ft (2.1 m) to ensure it can withstand being tossed into buildings and landing on hard surfaces.

Once activated, the device's cameras take a few monochrome WVGA (800 x 480) images every second. These are run through a single processor, with image-stitching software developed by engineers at the Costa Rican Institute of Technology producing a single 360-degree panoramic image of the ball's surrounds.

It is this image-stitching technology that Bounce Imaging CEO and Explorer inventor Francisco Aguilar highlights as the key innovation that makes the device possible. Unlike other methods that can take around a minute to combine multiple images into a single panorama, the software's algorithms can achieve this in a fraction of a second.

Because there's no guarantee that a building will have a solid Wi-Fi connection – particularly if it's on fire – the ball also serves as its own wireless hotspot to ensure users can wirelessly receive the ball's images. Range is currently pegged at 60 ft (20 m) through standard walls, and the ball's rechargeable batteries last 30 minutes with the embedded LEDs flashing at full intensity.

The idea of a throwable ball with cameras inside isn't limited to police forces and first responders. Over the past few year's we've seen a number of attempts at creating a throwable camera to capture captivating perspectives of the world around us.

Jonas Pfeil has attempted to create a ball that takes 72-megapixel still panoramas, while Panono took a crowdfunding route to creating a throwable panorama-creating camera. There's also a prototype from a company called Squito, which listed reconnaissance, search-and-rescue and first responder scene assessment in its potential applications.

Bounce Imaging is hoping to field more orders for its throwable camera as its full potential becomes clear through experience with police departments. The company is also planning to add sensors for radiation, temperature and carbon monoxide to expand the capabilities of the ball in the future, while Aguilar says the image-stitching technology could also find applications in drones, video games, movies, or smartphone technologies.

"Our main focus is making sure the [Explorer] works well in the market,” Aguilar says. "And then we’re trying to see what exciting things we can do with the imaging processing, which could vastly reduce computational requirements for a range of industries developing around immersive video."

The standard Explorer, which comes with white LEDs to illuminate the space and distract potential attackers is priced at US$1,495, while the Tactical Edition, which comes with near-infrared LEDs to illuminate a space discreetly, is priced at $2,495.

The Explorer's functionality is demonstrated in the video below.

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