Behold the gigapixel camera
It captures images 25 times more detailed than the smartest camera on the market, representing the future of photography - and spying.
US engineers have created a camera with a resolution so high that a scene containing street signs, licence plates and people a kilometre away can be captured and zoomed in on to reveal letters, numbers and identities.
While the camera phone with the highest resolution on the market - the Nokia 808 - has a 41-megapixel sensor, the "AWARE-2" can take snapshots of up to 1000 megapixels, or 1 gigapixel.
Described in the journal Nature this week, the AWARE-2 is made of 98 microcameras, each with a 14-megapixel sensor, grouped around a shared spherical lens. About the size of a milk crate, it is somewhat more cumbersome than a smartphone, mainly because of the electronic and cooling systems needed to take such a large image.
But the engineers, from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, say a portable camera with similar capabilities could be available within five years.
They also expect to be able to boost the camera's resolving power to reach about 50 gigapixels.
The megapixel technology has already been employed to capture high-resolution images at sporting events and rock concerts. The images can then be zoomed in on to literally enable a close up view of "a face in the crowd".
The technology firm Fancam generates a composite image, created by "stitching" together hundreds of overlapping "zoomed in" images. The company uses normal high-end digital SLR cameras with telephoto lenses and normal tri-pods. The magic lies in the method developed to use these instruments, as it finds the perfect balance between precision and speed.
Australian imaging journalist and reviewer Terry Lane said while the physics of such a compact, powerful camera seemed unlikely, optical technology was changing rapidly.
"In its present form of course, it's very awkward, because it's made up of all those cameras, and two cubic feet of processing equipment," Mr Lane said.
"But if you consider that when the first digital camera was made in 1975, it had 0.01 megapixels - and nobody took much notice of it. At that stage, very few people could see what the future held, but within just a few years, the whole technology had changed."
Images published in the Nature article included a wide-view shot of a lake. In the compressed version, no animals are visible, but zooming in reveals every swan on the lake.
It is already possible to create gigapixel images using "stitching" software that merges images from lots of lower-resolution files; a process that can take up to an hour - by which time those swans might have flown away. But the AWARE-2 allows a gigapixel photo to be taken in an instant.
The researchers are now building a video-camera capable of capturing gigapixel images at the rate of about 10 per second. An even faster camera could allows fans watching a football game to zoom in on the player of their choice, rather than relying on the discretion of the cameraman.
While the technology's applications for sports fans, nature-lovers and photography buffs are enticing, the earliest use of the AWARE-2 will probably be military.
The researchers were funded by a US defence agency, and it is likely the camera's first use will be in automated military surveillance systems, such as unpiloted drone aircraft.
"Every new technology requires a new war - and this falls into that category," says Mr Lane. "It's a new type of technology for a new type of warfare, sadly."