Shree Nayar is T. C. Chang Professor of Computer Science and the Chairman of the Computer Science Department at Columbia University, Director of Columbia’s Computer Vision Laboratory, and Co-director of the Columbia Vision and Graphics Center.
A pioneer in the emerging field of computational cameras, and a leading expert in the fields of computer vision and computer graphics, Nayar has published over 200 scientific articles and holds over 30 patents. His inventions include cameras that can capture 360°, high dynamic range, and three-dimensional images. He has received numerous awards for both research and teaching. In February 2008, he was elected to prestigious National Academy of Engineering.
His most recent project—and the focus of this interview—is the BigShot Camera: an idea that upends the conventional way to understand and use the camera and that just might have the potential to change lives.
How did you become interested in creating new types of cameras?
When I started at Columbia, I began working on physics-based vision. The idea behind physics-based vision is to understand the interaction of light with materials: For example, why does silk look a certain way, and why does it look different from velvet? To understand those nuances, you really have to get down to the interactions of light with materials. So the role of light became a focus of my work.
In the early 1990s, this focus led me to an interest in building new types of cameras. If you think about it, cameras today have been created either for photography or for television and film, but not necessarily for perception. So how does one create new types of cameras that produce new forms of visual information?
This question led to computational cameras—the basic idea being that you throw away the classical lens and replace it with any of a number of new types of lenses, and you capture an image that we call an optically coded image; then you use a computer—residing either within the camera or outside of it—to decode the image after the fact to produce new types of images. Thus you can produce, for example, three-dimensional images, panoramic images, high dynamic range images, and so on.
And how did these ideas lead to the BigShot Camera?
Cameras play a special role in society. Using a camera is an emotional experience both for the person who is taking the shot and for the person who is being shot. The camera allows you to express yourself visually and artistically, and to communicate in a way that no other piece of technology does.
As I began to think about this unique role of the camera, I asked this question: Can we create a new type of camera that could have a wider social impact? In the past, developing new types of cameras had been almost invariably driven by seeking the next scientific research result—seeking to breach the known limits of optics or imaging. But now I wondered, can we create a device that, even if it’s not a scientific breakthrough, might be something of a social breakthrough—something that could take the already special place that the camera has in society and leverage that into something unprecedented?
However, inventing cameras for social impact is simply not what universities do; so I was unsure whether this endeavor was realistic. As I was pondering the idea, I saw the film Born into Brothels, a terrific Oscar-winning documentary in which a French woman goes into the red-light district in Calcutta to document the lives of prostitutes. She focuses much attention on the prostitutes’ children, who are growing up in the most inhumane of conditions. She decides to teach the kids photography with a film camera. Just knowing this new skill and being able to take pictures seemed to give these kids a fresh view and new hope. Remarkably, one of them, Avijit Halder, is a student at NYU now.
That film convinced me that this idea of camera as social change agent was valid and worth pursuing even in the face of difficulties. And so then, we started working on the BigShot Camera.
What’s behind the name BigShot?
There’s a double meaning: First, the word “shot” implies a snapshot, a photograph. Second, you expose kids to the world of science, engineering, math, art, and photography; and thus even underprivileged kids can become “big shots.”
What are the goals and features of the BigShot Camera?
The BigShot Camera’s target audience is kids, approximately ages 8 to 14; though I believe that older teens and even adults can also benefit. The mission of the BigShot project is threefold.
The first aspect of the mission is what we call “learning by building.”
The BigShot Camera comes as a kit—a tray of parts that the user has to put together. If you go to bigshotcamera.org and click on “build,” you’ll find step-by-step instructions so that the student can put the camera together.
As the student puts together the camera, on the website she can click on “learn,” which takes her to an interactive textbook—complete with flash demonstrations—where the student can learn the underlying concepts of engineering and physics as she builds the camera.
What are some of the physical components?
The BigShot has components that you would not find in any other camera. For example, it has a power generator. It has a little hand-crank, and with just a few cranks, you can generate enough power to take a photo even if you do not have a battery. Admittedly, it’s easy enough to get a AA battery, so this feature is not a necessary one; however, we added it because it provides an excuse to expose the kids to important engineering concepts, such as mechanics, the gearbox, electromagnetism, the dynamo, and how power is stored in a capacitor.
The BigShot also has an interesting and unconventional system of lenses. Like the Swiss Army knife, we have a wheel with multiple optical elements. One gives you a normal field of view, about 45°, like a cell-phone camera. Another gives you a wide, panoramic field of view, about 80°. The third one gives you an anaglyph, or 3-D image. That one really excites the kids!
In addition to learning through the interactive on-line textbook, the act of handling the physical components of the camera and putting them together is a powerful educational experience.
Teachers or parents can compress or expand this experience however they would like to. This learning-by-building phase can be a one-day workshop, or a semester-long course, or something in between—depending on how much time you have and how deeply you want to delve into the underlying science, technology, engineering, and math.
What’s the second phase?
Once you’ve completed the “learn by building” phase, you enter the second space that we call “create by using.” Here we teach the kids simple photographic concepts such as the rule of thirds, and the kids use the camera and its different features to experience photography, and to experience the camera as tool for documentation, journalism, and art.
The third phase is “express by sharing.” Kids upload their pictures (or we upload the best ones) onto our website. Here, kids from different countries, different cultures, and different socio-economic backgrounds all share their piece of the world with other kids. An eight-year-old in Africa can take a peek at how an eight-year-old in Bangalore lives.
Right now, this on-line community lives at bigshotcamera.org, in the “SHARE” section; however, we are now developing a social networking site, kind of like a Flickr for kids, where the kids can upload their own photos as well as view photos from other kids from different countries. Actually, this website will not even require that you use a BigShot Camera.
What cities have you worked in so far?
We have conducted field tests in New York City; Tokyo; Bengaluru, India; and Vung Tau, Vietnam. Dozens of photos taken by the kids and of the kids are viewable on the “share” section of http://www.bigshotcamera.org.
Some of these kids had never used a camera before. In America, we think of cameras as devices that just about everybody has access to; however, in many countries cameras are still unavailable to the majority of people. Given that, it’s amazing how quickly the kids got the hang of photography.
Taking a photograph is a very personal experience—it’s the capturing of an image that the shooter feels is important or noteworthy or beautiful. And these photos communicate even more than that: In the backgrounds of these photos, we can learn about the cultures, the flora and fauna of a region, the architecture, and so on. The students really enjoy seeing photographs taken by and of kids from other parts of the world as well as from their own part of the world.
Do you have plans to do further field tests?
Not right now. In all four of our field tests—which involve kids from vastly different cultures—the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We also conduct ongoing workshops here at Columbia where we bring in kids from different schools in New York City, and the feedback is the same. We have never had to drag any kid—boy or girl, privileged or underprivileged—through these workshops. The laughs and smiles of the kids make it clear how they feel about the BigShot Camera. The only negative reaction at all from the kids has been, in some cases, impatience during the building phase—because they want to start taking pictures. Each one of these 200 to 300 kids from the four cities has also filled out a detailed questionnaire after the fact, and again, the story is the same.
By the way, we have exactly 12 of these cameras! (laughs) I didn’t tell you that until now, because I didn’t want you to hang up on me and abandon this article! These are prototypes that have been manufactured one by one, by hand, so these same 12 cameras have traveled to all four cities for the field tests. So, for now at least, we are done with field tests and we are using the 12 cameras for our workshops in New York City.
So the next step is mass production and making these available for sale to the public?
That’s the goal. I am currently speaking with camera manufacturers. I am hoping that within the next 12 months, I can convince some manufacturer to do this.
What are the barriers?
The main issue is that the BigShot is so different from any other camera.
Cameras compete in the commercial consumer space; and in that space it’s all about how much zoom, how many megapixels, and so on.
The BigShot Camera is not about those things, and probably should not even be on the same shelf as other cameras. The BigShot is an educational tool; and camera manufacturers have never really thought about education; and that’s the main roadblock. Every manufacturer I’ve spoken with is very excited about the idea, but the prospect of entering a completely new space is a daunting one for them.
Is there thought of a partnership between a camera manufacturer and an educational technology company?
In some ways, that would seem like a perfect marriage for the BigShot. But the problem is that a lot of education technology products are toys first, educational tools second. So they are marketed and sold as toys; and that is clearly not the space for the BigShot either.
Can you think of another product that does occupy this same space?
I think that the closest would be certain robotics products, such as the LEGO Mindstorms Robots, which are doing pretty well.
As an academic, I don’t make a habit of promoting websites; but truly I would love as many people as possible to visit our website, www.bigshotcamera.org, and see what it’s all about, and enjoy some of the wonderful photos taken by the kids who participated in our field tests.
In terms of going for mass production, I want to talk to anyone and everyone who could make this happen. I have seen first-hand what the BigShot Camera can do with a few dozen kids at a time; I cannot wait to see what it can do on a larger scale.
Ranjit Souri writes from Chicago.
Update: The BigShot social networking site mentioned in the interview is now up on-line, at www.bigshotconnect.org. (Or, from www.bigshotcamera.org, click on “Connect”.) At BigShot Connect, any kid in the world with a digital camera (which does not even need to be a BigShot Camera) can create his or her own “museum” of original photographs, and check out other kids’ museums from throughout the world, and learn more about the science and technology behind the BigShot Camera, and play the new BrainShot game. The site also contains content for teachers and parents.