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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 8 | Aug. 7, 2003

Computer Science Professor Invents New Digital Camera

Old technology was the key

By Michelle Cook

In a world of pocket-sized digital cameras and colour printers capable of turning any kitchen table into a high-tech photo lab, the UBC ScanCam seems an unlikely harbinger of the next wave of computer graphics technology.

With its bulky wooden frame and accordion-pleat bellows, the ScanCam could be an antique from another photographic era. But look a little closer and you’ll see that the 8 x 10-inch film plate usually found at the back of vintage cameras has been replaced by a sleek flatbed scanner.

The odd-looking contraption can generate an 8.5 x 10-inch image and scan it at 1,200 dpi (dots per inch) to produce a digital graphic with a resolution of 122 million pixels. The image can then be enlarged into a 34 x 40-inch poster-sized print with a 300 dpi resolution. And it’s all done with about $2,000 in equipment, says the ScanCam’s creator Wolfgang Heidrich.

Heidrich, an assistant professor of computer science, began pairing old and new photographic technologies last summer in an attempt to find a cheaper way to capture high-quality computer images.

“In this area of research, we always want higher resolution images in order to get more detailed graphics and we want it to be inexpensive,” Heidrich says. “With this camera, for the first time we have been able to produce digital photography that approaches large-format analogue photography in terms of resolution and quality.”

The ScanCam is a bargain compared to the mass-market digital cameras currently available. Although less expensive, they only produce six-million-pixel images. Even a professional digital camera with a price tag of $30 - $40,000 only produces 20-million-pixel images.

Heidrich’s only costs were the vintage-style camera kit, which he ordered online, a Canon Lide30 scanner, which he modified slightly, and a few other parts. He and graduate student Shuzhen Wang then developed the software necessary to operate the ScanCam.

The camera’s ability to capture extremely high-resolution images and enlarge them inexpensively makes it an excellent tool for product photography and commercial art. It could also be used to electronically archive museum collections and, with an infrared function, to scan fruit to check for things like core rot.

Sound like a photographer’s dream? The ScanCam’s biggest drawback is that, with five minutes of scan time needed for each image, it can’t be used to snap shots of living subjects or moving objects. So far, the only subjects patient enough to pose for Heidrich and Wang have been toys.

Even so, Heidrich has approached a few Vancouver camera shops to field the ScanCam’s commercial potential and they are interested. But don’t consider trading in your Nikon Coolpix just yet.

Although Heidrich envisions a much more streamlined version of the camera commercially available 10 years from now, he says there’s more research to be done on working with such high resolution images. Among the challenges still to tackle are developing an interface for the ScanCam software, addressing problems with distortion correction and digital zoom, and finding compression techniques for dealing with large digital images.

After that the ScanCam should be, as they say, picture perfect.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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