“This Next Gen Camera Is Flash-Free, With or Without Light”

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The Story

“This Next Gen Camera Is Flash-Free, With or Without Light”
by Ferris Jabr
Popular Mechanics, September 14, 2010

The Pitch

[Jabr notes: This was one of the first two articles I successfully freelanced. My basic strategy in writing the pitch letters was to open with something that could be the lede, summarize the main story and ideas, explain why it was a good fit for that particular publication and briefly note my previous published work. In both cases, I worked from previous drafts completed as class assignments and the openings of my pitch letters were largely conserved in the articles themselves. Perhaps that makes them somewhat unusual cases.]

No Flash Photography, Please!
Researchers create an invisible ‘dark’ flash camera By Ferris Jabr
Computer scientist Rob Fergus was sitting in a dimly lit Boston bar one night when a sudden burst of bright light dazzled and stunned him. It wasn’t a UFO, an angel, or a rip in the fabric of spacetime. No, it was merely the camera flash accompanying a friend’s photograph.

Blinking away temporary blindness, Fergus contemplated his dilemma. Because clear photographs require a strong light source, cameras depend on an obnoxiously powerful flash in any environment with low lighting. What if, Fergus wondered, we could circumvent the need for such an intense flash? What if we could take high quality photos in poor light using an invisible flash?

A year of tinkering later, in the summer of 2009, Fergus had a working prototype. He calls it dark flash photography: a camera that emits and records light outside the visible spectrum. There is a flash, but you barely notice it. And the photographs are just as good as those that rely on a regular flash — if not better. Fergus is now in conversation with Samsung about developing the product, although he would prefer if this were kept confidential.

Rob Fergus belongs to New York University’s Media Research Lab, a highly interdisciplinary center for computer graphics and simulation, machine learning, robotics and media
development. The futuristic gadgets we dream about are the toys the Media Lab researchers play with every day.

The dark flash camera achieves its subtlety by emitting and capturing wavelengths of light in the ultraviolet (UV) and the infrared (IR) spectra, just outside the range of wavelengths the human eye can easily detect. That’s something ordinary cameras can’t do. To create an invisible flash, Fergus had to make a few clever and pioneering modifications to the hardware and software of his prototype camera. No one has ever altered a camera to use IR and UV light in this way before.

My article will tell the story of Rob Fergus and his dark flash camera, beginning with the moment of inspiration, taking the reader through the process of construction, and ending with the final product and the versatile commercial applications and potential.

Dark flash photography can illuminate any poorly lit scene without disturbing others: a bar, a restaurant, a concert, a midnight stroll in the park or on the beach. An invisible flash could also be useful for security or reconnaissance. Museums that ban flash photography might permit dark flash, as long as UV light can’t damage the artifacts or paintings. And tourists at the zoo could snap as many pictures as they like without their flashes disturbing the lions, tigers and bears.

Fergus, who is an amusing character, is humble about such myriad applications. In a way, he will always think of dark flash photography as that kooky idea he had in a bar one night. “Drunk people in bars really are the target market,” he told me.

Along the way, I will thoroughly and lucidly describe the important technical details and science so the reader understands exactly how the new technology works. We all love to get our hands on new gadgets, but we don’t often consider or read about how those technologies were developed. In this case, I have intimate access to an experimental gadget factory and the narrative of a particularly intriguing piece of technology.

I have also consulted a number of experts outside the NYU Media Lab, including: Ankit Mohan, an expert in camera technology at the MIT; Amit Agrawal, a computer scientist and electrical engineer who specializes in computational photography at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories; and Michael Grossberg, a computer scientist who researches computer vision and camera technology at the City University of New York. I contacted Samsung several times, but they did not agree to comment themselves.

After searching the archives of Wired, Popular Mechanics, Technology Review and other related major publications, I could not find a single article on dark flash photography or Rob Fergus.

I thank you for your consideration and hope to hear from you soon.

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