Frankencamera: A Far-Reaching Open Source Camera Project From Stanford

by Ostatic Staff - Sep. 03, 2009

As more and more of us get used to taking photos with digital cameras, it's easy to forget that many computing components, and software, are housed in them, and in the cell phones that many people use to snap pictures. Where there are computing components and software, there is also room for hacking, and for open source camera customization. On that last front, Stanford scientists are at work on an open source "Frankencamera," an open platform that will first be available at minimal cost to computational photography researchers, but could eventually allow anyone to customize camera features. You can watch a video of Stanford professor Mark Levoy demonstrating how Frankencamera improves on standard digital photos here. Will photo enthusiasts go for this?

As Stanford's announcement of the Frankencamera effort notes, an app store-like model for camera applications could eventually offer anyone arrays of extensions for the open source camera platform:

"Computer science graduate student Andrew Adams, who helped design the prototype of the Stanford camera (dubbed Frankencamera,) imagines a future where consumers download applications to their open-platform cameras the way Apple apps are downloaded to iPhones today. When the camera’s operating software is made available publicly, perhaps a year from now, users will be able to continuously improve it, along the open-source model of the Linux operating system for computers or the Mozilla Firefox web browser. Programmers will have the freedom to experiment with new ways of tuning the camera’s response to light and motion, adding their own algorithms to process the raw images in innovative ways."

Stanford researchers are particularly interested in bringing some of the photo-enhancing features found in use on computers directly to Frankencamera. Specifically, there are already software packages that extend a camera's dynamic range--its ability to handle many different kinds of lighting in one picture.

For example, if you've ever taken a digital photo of someone standing against a backdrop of snow, you may have found the resulting picture to have jarring and unpleasant lighting differences, where flesh tones can look unnatural with hugely bright snow seen in the background. You may also have used photo editing software to work with contrast and lighting to fix such a picture.

Frankencamera's software is projected to be able to capture pictures of the same scene with different exposures, and then to combine them into a composite image in which every pixel is optimally lit. This would occur at the scene of the photo. Frankencamera may also be able to wirelessly access highly rated online photos of a particular type of subject, and then offer advice or automatic adjustments for getting the same quality photo of a similar subject.

The concept of hacking digital cameras has been around for a while, and there are even books on how to hack filters, hack remote controls for cameras, and more. For the Frankencamera effort, though, researchers envision an open source community contributing camera customizations that become available to everyone. I can envision some photography junkies that I know getting behind that idea.