3D Printing a Single Pixel Camera

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When today’s digital cameras regularly boast a capacity of 20 megapixels or more, it may seem strange that anyone would spend anytime developing a camera with one single, solitary pixel as its offering. After all, what can you get from a single pixel but a solid square of color, right? How in heaven’s name would that be a worthwhile use of a photographer’s time?

camera_render_allThe key here lies in the understanding that photography is not simply the replication of an exact image of 3D reality on a 2D media. Instead, the camera is a tool for creating an image that the photographer wishes to convey. So, while a single pixel camera probably won’t be the tool of choice to photograph your niece’s wedding or other special occasion anytime soon, it is a worthwhile effort that creates some interesting images.

Of more direct interest to our readership, this single pixel camera was created using 3D printing technology. It’s a fairly complex creation and so most likely won’t be a Shapeways download, but its inventor, Ben Greer, is hopeful that others will involve themselves in further refining the design.

IMG_2677His quest grew out of years of experimentation with images and with subjects that were deserving of photographs and so he began to consider the ways in which he could create an image-processing device. Rather than turning to the 6th grade science project of making a pinhole camera to capture an image on film, Greer was more ambitious: he wanted a digital camera that could capture images in color, and he wanted to build it himself. Oh, and he also wanted it to be inexpensive, using what he already had on hand: a single color light sensor, various and sundry electronic components, and… a 3D printer.

He eventually realized he would have to spring for a couple of additional elements in order to make the camera more versatile and so purchased an SD card board and a battery pack so that he could take it outside for photographs as well. Greer readily admits that he is a scientist and not an engineer, and not even one who pretends that scientists could easily do anything an engineer could. He spent a great deal of time designing and revising the pieces to be printed, to the point where his first 3D printer committed the mechanical equivalent of hara-kari.

20141002_191338After upgrading to a new 3D printer, Greer continued his experimentation and eventually developed a design that could be printed in eight pieces. With those pieces successfully printed, he soldered the Arduino to a protoboard and then moved on to the coding that would be necessary to make his invention come to life.

singlepixel8The pictures that are created are much more complex than you would imagine for a single pixel camera. None produce images that are recognizable but instead abstract color washes that any Fauvist painter would have loved to get their hands on. Greer said that frankly he was surprised the camera produced any images at all and so, of course, the images in whatever their state indicate a successful proof of concept.

For an excellent description of how the single pixel camera works and for more details on the coding aspect, visit Green’s blog. Be forewarned, however, the site contains gruesome photos of a dead 3D printer…

Discuss this story in the 3D Printed Camera forums thread on 3DPB.com.

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