Prof. Nayar's Little Camera Is a Big Idea for Children Around the World
Special from The Record
(Editor's note: This story was originally published on November 4, 2009. Shree Nayar's Bigshot digital camera is now available and the video has been updated.)
Shree Nayar has dedicated much of his computer science career to improving the way cameras take pictures. Four years ago, he decided to move in a new direction: to design a camera that could improve the way children learn about science and one another.
He came up with a prototype as sleek as an iPod and as tactile as a Lego set: the Bigshot digital camera. It comes as a kit, allowing children as young as eight to assemble a device as sophisticated as the kind grown-ups use—complete with a flash and standard, 3-D and panoramic lenses—only cooler. Its color palette is inspired by M&Ms, a hand crank provides power even when there are no batteries and a transparent back panel shows the camera’s inner workings.
Nayar also worked with a group of engineering students, led by Guru Krishnan, An Tran and Brian Smith, to create a website, bigshotcamera.org, that walks children, teachers and parents through the assembly process. Eventually, it will serve as a kind of Flickr for kids, with young photographers from around the world sharing their pictures. “The idea here was not to create a device that was an inexpensive toy,” says Nayar. “The idea was to create something that could be used as a platform for education across many societies.”
Nayar, the T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science and chair of that department at the Columbia University Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), worked on Bigshot for two years. The project is an extension of his work as director of SEAS’s Computer Vision Lab, where he has expertise in highly sensitive cameras. Among his inventions is the Omnicam, a video camera that shoots seamless 360-degree images, and a technology—recently developed in collaboration with Sony—that extends the range of brightness and color that cameras can capture.
But, as the father of two young children, he wanted to have an impact beyond the high-tech sector on a humanitarian level. He was inspired by the 2005 Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, which depicts the lives of children growing up in Calcutta’s red-light district. The filmmaker, British photographer Zana Briski, gave 35 mm film cameras to eight children and watched as those cameras transformed their lives.
“The film reaffirmed something I’ve believed for a long time, which is that the camera, as a piece of technology, has a very special place in society,” says Nayar, who grew up in New Delhi. “It allows us to express ourselves and to communicate with each other in a very powerful way.”
With the Bigshot, Nayar wants to not only empower children and encourage their creative vision, but also get them excited about science. Each building block of the camera is designed to teach a basic concept of physics: why light bends when it passes through a transparent object, how mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, how a gear train works.
Nayar would like to roll out the camera, now in prototype form, along the lines of the One Laptop Per Child campaign: For each one sold at the full price of around $100, several would be donated to underprivileged schools in the United States and abroad. He will soon begin looking for a partner—a company or nonprofit—to help put Bigshot into production.
In the meantime, Nayar, Krishnan, Tran and Smith have been field-testing the camera with children around the world. Over the summer, Krishnan and Tran took several Bigshot prototypes to their hometowns: Bangalore, India, and Vung Tau, Vietnam, respectively. Nayar also brought the camera to two New York City Schools, the private School at Columbia and Mott Hall in Harlem.
Each spent a morning teaching several small groups of children how to assemble the cameras; after lunch, their charges went out to take pictures. The response from the kids was one of overwhelming enthusiasm. “They were ready to buy the camera then and there,” says Krishnan. “One offered me 10,000 rupees ($200).” More importantly, tests that Nayar and his team gave out two days later showed that the students had retained the science concepts that Bigshot was expected to teach.
For Nayar, the best part of this experience has been looking at the pictures. “I am addicted to the pictures; I can’t get enough of them,” he says. “The fact that some of the kids were using a camera for the first time, and they were able to frame what they thought was important and capture that moment so beautifully, was really remarkable.”
It’s an experience he hopes to bring to many more children, locally and globally.
—by Anna Kuchment