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Kid-friendly camera designed at Columbia makes worldwide debut

It teaches science, engineering, photography, and Web sharing, and it fits in the palm of your hand.

It is the “BigShot,” a small digital camera for elementary school students. Shree Nayar, T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science and co-director of the Columbia Vision and Graphics Center, along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students, invented this inexpensive camera that comes in separate parts so users can assemble the device themselves.

According to Nayar, the project has three aims. He wants children to learn key engineering and science concepts by assembling the camera, to explore their creativity and artistic expression by taking photos, and to upload and share their pictures with other students across the world on the BigShot Web site.

Nayar said that much of his previous work has dealt with high-end technology, and his motivation for building a simple camera was to create something accessible to a vast audience across continents and socioeconomic boundaries. The name BigShot comes from his goal to turn underprivileged children—who might otherwise be underexposed to science and engineering—into “big shots” by giving them the camera. The group of researchers who invented the device have also tested the camera in Bangalore, India and Vung Tau, Vietnam as part of an effort to make BigShot a global enterprise.

The camera features three lenses: a regular lens, a panoramic lens, and a stereo lens that produces three-dimensional images that can be seen with 3-D glasses. The glasses are included in the camera kit, along with a dynamo—or a crank—that is wound to generate the energy needed to take pictures, so the device does not need batteries.

“The reason we did it is not so that you can take pictures when you run out of a battery, but it’s more the idea of putting the mechanics of that [the crank] in there so we can teach them that as well,” Nayar said, adding that the design teaches kids about the mechanics of a camera as well as the physiology of the eye.

Nayar has two small children of his own, and asked for input from his seven-year-old son, Akash, when considering the concept of the camera two years ago. “We had lots of conversations, to the extent that he started making his own sketches and suggesting his own design,” he said.

The research group also tested it out at the School at Columbia University, a private school affiliated with the University. Lisbeth Uribe, head science teacher at the School, said that the camera’s accompanying Web site “does a fantastic job of explaining how the camera works. And the Flash animation is marvelous, wonderful for teaching the kids.”

“It was interesting how hands-on the camera was, how you could really understand how it functioned,” said her son, eighth grader Oscar Uribe.

Lisbeth Uribe added, “This is a wonderful project also because of its ability to connect people from such diverse cultures and backgrounds, so there’s a wonderful social studies piece.”
The Web site allows students from across the world to share pictures, which student designers agreed is the linchpin of the project.

“We want kids of the same age to share their experiences, their lives, everything, with kids around the world,” said Guru Krishnan, a Ph.D. student who helped develop the Web site and software.
Nayar said that the global response has been overwhelming, adding that he hopes eventually it can be widely produced and accessible internationally.

“Every day I get about 10 e-mails from all around the world,” Krishnan said. In just one day he received messages from Israel, China, the Netherlands, India, and the United States from people who heard about the cameras and hoped to acquire them.

Brian Smith, SEAS ’09 and now a graduate student in computer science, worked on the design and field research, which he said was most rewarding.
“Kids are incredibly creative,” Smith said. “They took gorgeous pictures of their neighborhood. … They really get a kick out of it, and so that’s the neatest part.”


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