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While most Americans have switched from film to digital cameras, our idea of a photograph really hasn't changed much. It's still something we print and put on the wall or in an album. Researchers are working on technology that could change that. They're building supercameras that can record a scene in astonishing detail. Imagine every photo so rich it offers an entire virtual world to explore.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce got to see one of these cameras as it was being tested.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: It's almost sunset at Mason Neck State Park in Northern Virginia. From the visitor center, you can look out across a bay and see bald eagles flying.

STEVE FELLER: Is there any way we can get over the fence or through the fence more than over the fence?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A team from Duke University is wheeling a metal cart towards the water. On the cart is a big black box about the size of a mini fridge. This is a prototype camera. It's about 25 times more powerful than a top-notch digital camera you could buy in a store. It takes gigapixel images.

FELLER: So to give you an idea of the scale of these images, if you were to print out a photograph-quality print of this image, it's going to be about 20 feet long and probably 10 to 12 feet tall.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Steve Feller is a manager for this camera project. He says in the past, people have made gigapixel images of places like Paris or Mount Everest. But these typically are composites of hundreds of photos taken one after another and then stitched together. The problem is that approach can't capture an instant in time. This camera can.

Feller points to a crystal ball at the front. That's the main lens. Behind it are many tiny cameras.

FELLER: Basically it's an aggregate of 158 smaller cameras that work together to make one really big image.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They set up the camera so that it's looking out at the bay. There's no need to point it at anything specific. It can see pretty much everything we can see, only better. A researcher named Zach Phillips looks at a laptop computer set up on top of the black box. On the screen is a small version of the scene we're looking at, broken up into little circles that represent the view of each microcamera.

Phillips zooms in to show the grain in the wood of a nearby fence post, then we click on another circle and zoom in to see a house across the bay. Phillips opens another program and gets ready to take the photo.

ZACHARY PHILLIPS: 3, 2, 1. There it goes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He hits the keyboard and all the microcameras snap at once, capturing everything happening in front of us at that moment. This gigapixel camera is the brainchild of David Brady. He's a professor at Duke who wants to push photography as far as the physics will allow.

DAVID BRADY: This camera is kind of a culmination of many years of work where our challenge has always been, what is the maximum amount of information we can measure with light?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He has plans for versions of this camera that can capture 50 gigapixels. This work was funded by the military, which has an obvious interest in looking in high detail in all directions at once. But Brady thinks it could transform all kinds of photography. Take sports. His team has photographed Duke University football games. You can see the ball in the air, plus the faces of all the players and all the fans.

BRADY: I can't imagine, you know, how people are going to use these things, and, of course, since I'm an instrument builder, that's the real interest. Because I'm sure photographers will use it in ways that I haven't even thought of.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The work has impressed other experts on gigapixel images, like Illah Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon University.

ILLAH NOURBAKHSH: In any case where you have a fast-moving world, like a sporting game, that idea of massively imaging everything simultaneously is very important.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says people won't be taking gigapixel images as often as everyday snapshots. They'll use it for special occasions, like, say, the Academy Awards. A normal camera would be fine for photographing the winner on stage, but a gigapixel camera could capture the reaction of every star in the audience.

NOURBAKHSH: These pictures are not really like a picture. They're kind of like an entire website. They're like an image-based reference into things that you care about. And that image, or spatial way of referring to things, is powerful, because our body is designed to understand things visually.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says people have gotten used to the idea of exploring detailed virtual worlds in video games. This technology could let them have the same kind of experience with images from the real world. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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