Scientists from Columbia University’s Computer Vision Laboratory have developed a prototype for a device they’re calling a flexible sheet camera.

The idea is to create a thin and flexible camera that can be affixed or wrapped around everyday objects like lamp posts or even vehicles to create unprecedented imagery that’s simply not possible with conventional cameras. Developing such a camera, as you can imagine, is no easy feat.

The obvious solution is to create an array of tiny lenses attached to a flexible structure. When such a structure is bent, however, it creates gaps between adjacent lenses that result in lost data. To solve this dilemma, the team used an elastic material to create a lens array in which the focal length of each lens varies with curvature. Or in other words, the lenses themselves are actually bending.

The 33 x 33 prototype lens array is more proof of concept than anything else, demonstrating the fact that the idea does work. As you’ll see in the above video, the resolution and overall image quality is quite low at this stage but it’s impressive nevertheless.

In the future, the team envisions a credit card-sized flexible camera that can be bent to adjust the focal length. A flexible sheet camera may also find useful applications in the emerging virtual reality industry where capturing 360-degree imagery is required.

The team plans to present its prototype at the International Conference on Computational Photography at Northwestern University next month.