San Francisco-based Stereolabs has launched a new 3D camera that promises to deliver high quality 3D image capture at a less than astronomical price. The compact, lightweight ZED 3D vision sensor can measure distances out to 20 meters (65 feet) and work indoors and out, making it a strong candidate for applications such as large-scale architectural scanning and obstacle detection for self-driving cars and unmanned drones.

Stereo cameras are passive devices that work by comparing two images taken by cameras several inches apart. Computer software looks at the distance in pixels between similar features in each image and use that to estimate the depth or distance from the camera to objects in the scene. These algorithms require precise calibration of the cameras in order to work.

Stereolabs was founded by Cecile Schmollgruber, Edwin Azzam and Olivier Braun back in 2010. Their original customers were movie studios doing special effects. Stereolabs would come in and capture a movie set in 3D using scanners and 3D cameras so that the computer animators could come in later and add the dinosaurs, rampaging green superheroes, or legions of zombies to the scene. This experience led them to conclude that there was a need in the market for good quality stereo cameras at a reasonable price – there are some low cost 3D sensors with poor sensors, and some high end, expensive laboratory cameras, but nothing at a reasonable price with good quality optics and video.

As a result Stereolabs spent years developing its 3D camera software, and the past 12 months working on the ZED hardware.

Based-on smart phone camera technology, the ZED camera was designed to be small, lightweight, low cost, and still have high quality output. The two cameras each have 4,416 x 1,242 pixel sensors in a 16 x 9 wide screen format. The optics allow 110 degrees field of view. The cameras are spaced 120mm (4.7 inches) apart, which with the dense pixel video gives usable stereo depth information from 1.5 to 20 m (5-65 ft). The unit itself measures 175 x 30 x 33 mm (6.89 x 1.18 x 1.3’’) and weighs 159 g (0.35 lb).

Gizmag talked to Cecile Schmollgruber, the CEO of Stereolabs, who explained that all of the calibration for the ZED camera is done within the device, and it automatically calibrates itself for quality depth sensing.

The ZED camera does not do all of the work by itself, though. The 3D camera sends side-by-side video images to a host computer that processes the data. For full capability, Stereolabs recommends having a CUDA-capable computer with an NVIDA graphics card.

Specifically, Schmollgruber recommends the NVIDIA Jetson TK1 embedded processing board, a single-board computer with a small form factor and a CPU-GPU combined chip. This board would allow 3D stereo processing on vehicles and other mobile applications of the ZED camera.

The potential applications for the ZED camera are numerous. It can be a long range 3D sensor for unmanned vehicles, self driving cars or small-scale mobile robots, it can capture 3D scenes and buildings to incorporate into computer animation and rendering, and collect detailed images of objects in three dimensions so they can be replicated with a 3D printer. It could also be part of a 3D video conferencing system where the participants wear HMD (Head Mounted Displays) like the Oculus Rift, or used for various types of recognition and tracking systems or tasks such as counting crowds at football stadiums.

The ZED camera is now available for US$449, with delivery times of two to three weeks expected.

Check out Stereolabs' ZED promo video below.

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