Researchers at Harvard have developed a way for photographers and microscopists to create a 3D image through a single lens, without moving the camera. The technology relies only on computation and mathematics — no unusual hardware or fancy lenses. The effect is the equivalent of seeing a stereo image with one eye closed.

The key is inferring the angle of the light at each pixel, rather than directly measuring it (which standard image sensors and film would not be able to do). The team’s solution is to take two images from the same camera position but focused at different depths. The slight differences between these two images provide enough information for a computer to mathematically create a brand-new image as if the camera had been moved to one side.

By stitching these two images together into an animation, the team provides a way to create the impression of a stereo image without the need for expensive hardware. They are calling their computational method light-field moment imaging — not to be confused with light-field cameras, which achieve similar effects using high-end hardware rather than computational processing.

Importantly, the technique offers a new and very accessible way to create 3D images of translucent materials, such as biological tissues.

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