One day, cameras may be able to capture less data but produce images that look just as good as a traditional photo. Bell Labs is the latest to attempt such a feat, and it's doing so while eschewing another major camera standby, the lens. The laboratory has developed a single-pixel camera that only uses a series of transparent openings to capture its image, without any glass to direct the light. The system uses a technology called "compressive sensing," which is still in its early stages of study. The idea is that instead of a camera capturing a full image and then whittling the data down into a small, compressed file like a JPG, a camera could instead capture almost exactly what it needs, making capture times much quicker.

No lens, always in focus

This isn't a reality just yet, however. Compressive sensing cameras build their final image by comparing the differences that come in through each aperture, and right now that takes too much time for them to shoot anything other than a still life. But by removing the lens, Bell Labs adds another impressive feature to its camera: its shots are always in focus. One always-in-focus camera, the Lytro, is already on the market, but Bell Labs sees its new tech as a practical way to shrink the size and cost of future cameras.

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Bell Labs' device is built with "low cost, commercially available components," which primarily amount to a semi-transparent LCD panel, a one-megapixel imaging sensor, and a computer to connect it all to. The LCD panel was placed in front of the sensor, and light came in through white "openings" in the panel. The camera measured the data separately for red, green, and blue light, and used a computer to stitch together the final image. While the images don't demonstrate the finest image quality, they emphasize what compressive sensing is capable of. The books were captured using only a quarter of the camera's total imaging capabilities, and the soccer ball was captured using even less, just one-eighth.