The Innovators: Tiny camera opens world of potential

A Victoria neuroscientist headed a team of scientists at Cornell University in New York that invented a camera small enough to fit on the head of a pin.

Naturally, Patrick Gill, 32, would like to see what a camera that small can do to unravel the mysteries of the human brain, and he acknowledges there's a vast array of other applications for the device he helped develop.

"It's the world's smallest camera," Gill said. "It's a factor of 100,000 smaller than the next smallest camera. What's really cool about this is it's the first camera that doesn't require any kind of lens or mirror or moving part."

The camera is a tiny, squareshaped dot on a computer chip. The essential parts are "angle-sensitive pixels," which create lowresolution images.

It uses a system similar to what you'd see driving down the highway and looking down rows of crops, said Gill, a postdoctoral associate at Cornell.

"There are some angles where all the corn lines up and you can see far, and other angles where you can't," he said.

These special pixels employ this same phenomenon. Each pixel is sensitive to light from specific angles.

"A regular camera uses an image sensor with mega-pixels," Gill said. "Each one of those pixels gives you an independent piece of information about the scene you're looking at.

"You have a lens that focuses the light at one particular point and ends up at one particular sensor. This small camera uses pixels that are each unique and they each are sensitive to a unique combination of angles all around them."

The camera's configuration means it doesn't need focusing or focal length or any adjustments required in a larger camera.

The cameras are cheap to make - about two cents apiece - so, Gill said, possible applications are nearly limitless.

"I've been focusing on getting it to work rather than looking at the bigger picture, such as what are the bigger applications. I'm really interested in getting some sensors like these out into the hands of innovators, so that they can tell me what the interesting things to do are."

Putting the cameras inside the body could give medical professionals new insights into internal functions, Gill said.

A camera in the brain could potentially see the activity of tiny neurons as they flash messages from one point to the next. "Everything we think and feel is all encoded in that currency," he said.

"We have some chemical and biological methods for loading neurons with dye so they become fluorescent when they fire ... we need better ways of interrogating what's going on in the brain as it's thinking. With that kind of information, you can start to ask questions [like] 'How is it that brains are so smart?' "

The camera can be made smaller still, said Gill. "The resolution for this is only about 20 by 20 pixels. We should be able to get 40 by 40 without changing the approaches we've been using."

It's too early to say if the device could be useful in medical therapy, Gill said.

"However, having this in the toolbox for neuroscience would advance the pace of research in any application where it's important to measure the individual activity of many neurons at the same time."

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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