Scientific research institutes typically need a lot of cameras, as their studies require various types of imaging. However, instead of having to buy multiple complete cameras, what if those places could just make the systems they needed out of electronic building blocks? Well, that's essentially what Columbia University's Cambits system is. It consists of multiple types of blocks that can be assembled in different configurations, each one of those comprising a different imaging system.

Cambits was developed by a team led by Columbia's Prof. Shree Nayar and Makoto Odamaki, a visiting scientist from the Ricoh Corporation.

The system is made up of five types of colored plastic 3D-printed blocks: white base blocks, red image sensors, blue flash units, green actuators/spacers, yellow lenses, plus both orange and purple optical attachments. Those blocks stick to one another magnetically, and are electronically linked via spring-loaded pins.

Power is provided by a hard-wired host computer or mobile device, and travels between the blocks through the pins – data and control signals are transmitted in the same fashion.

By mixing and matching the different blocks, it's possible to create cameras with functions such as high dynamic range, panoramic imaging, stereoscopic depth imaging, post-shoot refocusing (as seen on the Lytro camera) and microscopy. Running custom software, the host computer can identify each configuration, and responds by presenting the user with an appropriate control interface.

"We wanted to redefine what we mean by a camera," says Nayar. "Traditional cameras are really like black boxes that take one type of image. We wanted to rethink the instrument, to come up with a hardware and software system that is modular, reconfigurable, and able to capture all kinds of images."

More information is available in the following video.

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