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The Rose Camera

The Rose Camera is a high resolution, ultra wide color-spectrum, lens-less digital imaging system, developed by Eric Rosenthal of New York University. The camera's development was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and originally introduced in military applications. It entered widespread commercial use in the late 2030s and is now one of the most common form of digital cameras in the world.

Traditional Digital Photography and Understanding of the Human Vision System

Since the advent of quantum mechanics in 1925, physicists have known about the Wave-Particle duality of light. However, for the first 50 years of the history of digital photography, engineers treated light solely as a stream of particles to be captured.

In this era, digital cameras used CCD and CMOS sensors to "catch" light particle by particle. These sensors converted the impact of light particles into a voltage that could be measured by electronic circuits as the value of each pixel. In order to make color images, engineers placed red, blue, and green filters in front of the sensor to capture each channel separately (usually on different sub-sections of the sensor in a Bayer pattern).

This particle-based system was meant to emulate the at-the-time best understanding of the Human Vision Systems. At that time, researchers believed that human eyes captured particles of light in anatomical structures called rods and cones which triggered electrical impulses in nerves when contacted by photons. However it resulted in images with extreme technical limitations: color distortion, highly limited color range, the need for focusing optics, etc.

Development and Functioning of the Rosenthal Sensor

Starting in the first decade of the 21st century, inventor Eric Rosenthal began work on a completely different approach to understanding human vision and capturing light in digital devices. Rosenthal was an old radio engineer. He worked on the design of the NBC broadcasting system in New York and helped found Disney Research.

Working with vision researchers, Rosenthal developed a theory of the human eye as an antenna, the funnel shape of the rods and cones in the retina acting to capture different wavelengths of light at different points along their curves. He argued that this explained the extremely poor optical transmitting qualities of the eye and also constituted a better explanation for the color-range of human vision.

Building on this theory, Rosenthal set out to construct an electronic circuit that would act as an antenna for converting light into electrical signals. After extensive development, Rosenthal produced a novel type of light sensor in the form of a microscopic circuit printed in the shape of a spiral. The spiral acts similarly to the cones of the retina, "tuning in" different frequencies of light waves at points on the spiral with different circumferences. The result is a sensor with radically increased light sensitivity that can capture a much wider spectrum of light without the systemic color distortions introduced by the filters required by traditional methods (i.e. the green bias of Bayer-filtered sensors). This approach captures light wavelengths with such accuracy that a high resolution array of Rosenthal Sensors can act similarly to a mass spectrometer, recording the molecular composition of the imaged object if the gaseous make-up of the air between the sensor and the object of capture can be approximated or controlled. This feature of the Rose Camera (the commonly used term for cameras built around Rosenthal Sensors) has proved invaluable in surveying applications such as forestry (for determining forest composition) and military intelligence.

An additional advantage of the Rosenthal Sensor's wave-based approach is that it transforms image focusing from an optical problem into a signal-processing one. Traditional sensors require complex high-precision optics to focus all particles of light onto a perfect focal plane exactly at the position of the sensor. The Rosenthal Sensor captures a wide spectrum of wavelengths of light in the environment that reach it. The resulting image can then be selectively focused after capture by processing the recorded light waves in order to detect the waves that cohere at different distances from the camera. In other words, software working with the captured wave data can produce an image focused at any distance away from the camera or at multiple different points dynamically throughout the image, producing what we call High Focal Depth (HFD) images.

Development Timeline of the Rosenthal Sensor

The original development of the Rose Camera began in the late 90s with research support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). However, in the wake of the 2001 terrorists attacks, DARPA suspended funding for the project for 12 years.

In 2013, Rosenthal's DARPA funding was restored and his team began work on the first large-scale prototype of the system. In 2021, the US military deployed the first Rose Cameras on their Argus drone camera platform.

After extensive and widely-reported military usage, the system was released for wide commercial use in 2029. Initially it was adopted for large scale industrial imaging applications such as part inspection in manufacturing and species-detection in forestry management. As the process for producing the sensor fell in price, end-user commercial cameras began to appear. Nikon issued the first consumer-grade Rose camera in 2035. The sensors began to enter mobile devices in the early 2040s and became the market leader amongst smartphones by the end of the decade.

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