Cameras that can shoot 3D images are nothing new, but they don't really capture three dimensional moments at all - they actually record images in stereoscopic format, using two 2D images to create the illusion of depth. These photos and videos certainly offer a departure from their conventional two dimensional counterparts, but if you shift your view point, the picture remains the same. Researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) hope to change all that with the development of a strange-looking camera that snaps 360 degrees of simultaneous images and then reconstructs the images in 3D.

The researchers have created two prototype models, both inspired by the multi-lens eyes of insects like the house fly. One has a lens head about the size of an orange and features over a hundred camera lenses - like the ones used in mobile phones - and the other about the size of a golf ball and sporting 15 lenses. Unlike the stereoscopic photographic or video cameras with a front facing lens setup, the prototypes are able to record images from all around them.

The lenses point out through a hemispherical frame and are positioned in such a way that each image captured overlaps slightly on its neighbors. Sophisticated algorithms built into a dedicated hardware platform then judge the actual distance between the camera and subjects in the frame and merges the many gigabits of photographic information captured at 30 frames per second into a 360 degree panorama.

"With this invention, we solved two major problems with traditional cameras," said Professor Pierre Vandergheynst. "The camera angle, which is no longer limited thanks to the camera's ability to film in 360 degrees and in real time; and the depth of field, which is no longer limiting thanks to the 3D reconstruction."

The researchers report that images are captured in real time and without distortion and that users can choose to snap a single shot from a particular lens or have them all work together to produce the 360 degree, three dimensional panorama.

The team's Professor Yusuf Leblebici said that the "work is likely to change the entire field of image acquisition, with a huge range of potential applications" including movie-making and immersive games design.

The project is a collaborative project between the EPFL's Signal Processing Laboratory - who authored the algorithms to calculate the distance between the camera and subjects and those tasked with assembling all of the images into one 360 degree panorama - and the Microelectronic Systems Laboratory - who developed the apparatus and took care of the processing needs.

In the following video, Vandergheynst gives a short explanation of the technology: