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Generally, we like to make camera systems that work like our eyeballs do. And that's fine. But in a lot of ways, human eyeballs are terrible. The most successful class of animals ever, the arthropods, have gotten along just fine with compound eyes for a very long time, and the most sophisticated eyes of any animal are of the compound variety (belonging to our friend the mantis shrimp).
So obviously, compound eyes have something going for them, which is why researchers in general (and roboticists specifically) are so keen on developing their own versions. The eye to come out of EPFL this week is unique because it offers a huge insect-like field of view, very fast performance under all sorts of lighting conditions, and most notably, it's mechanically flexible: at just 1 mm thin, you can bend it into different shapes.
It's important to note that these aren't the sort of cameras that you'd want to use to take pictures. What they're best at is sensing movement, or to be more specific, sensing changes in the intensity of light generated by motion. It doesn't sound like much (and it doesn't look like much, either), but it's how bugs navigate and avoid obstacles, and as anyone who's ever tried to swat a fly can attest to, it works rather well. It also works indoors, outdoors, in bright sun, and in shade (or even moonlight), and has no trouble adapting to abrupt transitions between any of these states, which is something that conventional cameras are lousy at.
Going forward, we expect to see this tech integrated into robots, and there's also the potential for it to show up in lots of other applications. If it can be made inexpensively enough, we could end up with something like "imaging tape" that could be integrated into smart clothing, to provide a self-contained way of detecting distances to objects. Why? Because why not, that's why. But seriously, flexible sensors like these have the potential to enable all sorts of new applications that have been impossible until now, and we're excited to see what happens.