BigShot Camera Educates with DIY

By Kyle Dent
November 12, 2009

When I was a kid, a popular do-it-yourself project was to make a pinhole camera out of a shoe box or some similar light-proofable box. Of course, we're now in the Information Age, and while there are still shoe boxes, light-sensitive paper might be harder to come by. Besides, who wants boring old shoe-box projects when you can have something shiny and digital?

Shree Nayar, chair of Computer Science at the Columbia University has created BigShot, a digital camera kit for kids from eight years old and up to construct their own digital cameras. The purpose of the camera is primarily education, and testing indicates that it does a good job at that, but it also takes honest-to-goodness photos just like grown-up, pre-assembled adult versions. These cameras were field tested with young people in three cities New York, USA; Bengaluru, India; and Vung Tau, Vietnam. Besides having fun and learning about photography (it was the first time taking pictures for some of the kids), initial tests showed that the students retained the science concepts that Bigshot was expected to teach even when asked about them days after their time working with the camera.

Professor Nayar and his team in the Computer Vision lab of Columbia's computer science department spent two years developing the kits, which come in a variety of colors inspired by M&Ms. They wanted to create something that was more than just a fun toy but that could also teach important scientific principles. They have also created a comprehensive web site that walks you through the assembly, use, and explains the science that goes into the gadgets. Each component of the camera teaches a basic concept of physics, for example, how a lens bends light, converting mechanical into electrical energy, and how a gear-train works. The mechanical energy and gear train come from powering a dynamo that lets you take a picture even without a battery (you still need a battery for a flash photo). Since the power needed to snap a picture is actually small, a dynamo is perfectly suited to the purpose. Eventually Nayar's team expects the site to be a kind of Flickr for kids. One of the coolest features of the camera is a choice of lenses that sit on a wheel on the face of the body. You simply turn the wheel to move one of the different perspectives into position: normal, panoromic, and 3-D. The 3-D images can be viewed with the typical 3-D glasses.

The camera isn't available yet, though Nayar will soon be looking for a partner to move it from prototype to production. They are considering a model along the lines of the One Laptop Per Child program.

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