Fly Eyes Inspire Better Video Cameras, Motion Detection

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There will also be power savings.

Research funded by the U.S. military currently runs similar optical calculations using six standard PCs, Brinkworth says.

But the hundred million or so nerves in an insect brain use less than one ten-thousandth of a watt—or less than one-millionth the power of a standard light bulb.

Brinkworth's prototypes are showing similar savings.

"In the end stage, if we add these [devices] to cameras, hardly any extra power would be needed," he said.

But Brinkworth is guarding the exact details of his work for commercial reasons.

Smart Cameras

Brinkworth's work is part of a larger effort to give human-made vision systems such as security cameras the same robust seeing power as living eyes. (Related: "Animal Eyes Provide High-Tech Optical Inspiration" [December 2005].)

Cells in living eyes each work individually to adjust to various parts of an image. So they can produce a more detailed picture of the world, Brinkworth says.

"Millions of years of evolution have given living vision systems the ability to handle a wide variation in light," said Reid Harrison, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

"Digital cameras and chemical film don't have the same latitude."

Engineers want software that can mimic biological photoreceptors and higher-level visual processing. Others are interested in motion detection.

"Movement detection is key to security and defense applications," Brinkworth said. "When someone is creeping in shadow, you want that to pop out more."

The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research funded early stages of his project. The military group wants target-detection systems that spot fast-moving objects in "noisy" surroundings, such as planes or missiles zooming across a cloudy sky.

"This is providing some interesting and rather unexpected results, which could lead to novel, biologically-inspired solutions to digital image compression and recovery," said Mandyam Srinivasan, director of the Center for Visual Sciences at the Australian National University, who is familiar but unassociated with Brinkworth's project.

But the development challenges remain daunting.

"Some say roughly half of the brain deals with visual information in some way, and roughly half of an insect's brain is also dedicated just to seeing," the University of Utah's Harrison said. "So there is a lot more to be done after these initial stages."

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