Seeing the
Very Big Picture


Shree Nayar has invented an educational tool which teaches children the inner workings of a camera. Image: Jeffrey Schifman/Courtesy of Columbia Engineering

There was a time when someone would be part of a moment and have that unmistakable look of disappointment. It could be viewing incredible architecture, a gathering of old friends, anything memorable. Yes, there would be that moment when someone would say ruefully: “I wish we had a camera.”

Heard someone say that lately? With the advent of the camera phone, seemingly every moment can be documented—and many of them are.

But how many know the inner parts that make up this marvel called the camera? Thanks to Shree Nayar, the number is growing. “We seem to be a society that knows software but has a problem when it comes to hardware,” Nayar says. A co-director of the Columbia Vision Lab and Graphics Center, he came up with a solution: The BigShot camera.




Engineering Lessons

Broken up into 24 different parts of a camera for the user to put together, Nayar hopes it will click with young users and be more than just another way to take pictures. “For many kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever opened up any equipment like this,” he says. “I hope they’ll take the time to use the website because it can teach them many lessons.”

For example, click on “Lens Wheel” in the Build section and it also offers a chance to learn about the polyoptic wheel, leading you into facts about everything from a wide angle lens to even who discovered stereoscopy. Nayar also felt parents might be interested in getting more involved because many adults don’t know these facts either. “We really wanted children to understand how a lens works, even have a sense of a power source," he says. "When the battery is out, you can use a crank on the camera to get a few more pictures. Let’s explain to them how a gearbox works.”

The camera’s initial prototypes received feedback from several countries. Talking to kids from the U.S., India, Vietnam, and Japan, the results gave Nayar the feeling that this educational tool might just translate to practically any culture. “We were thinking of aspects such as panoramic cameras, multi-spectral, and more,” he says. “We really saw that the camera is a special piece of technology that allows us to express ourselves and communicate in a visual way in society and that’s consistent through most of the world.”




Teaching Hardware

Graduating from the Robotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, Nayar partly credits the BigShot Camera and his early tinkering curiosity to his engineer father working on cars when he was growing up. “Because of him, we didn’t even need a mechanic,” he says, “and you can really learn a lot by just looking inside something.”

With one billion cameras sold in various devices, he says, this was the obvious product to him for teaching hardware. But that doesn’t mean he’s ruled out computers or TVs as the next product for children to open up. “The key is to get them excited,” he says. “Teachers have already written in on how effective it’s been. Students normally are discouraged from opening up things because of a fear that they’ll break it. Now we can encourage it so they can learn from it.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

Students normally are discouraged from opening up things because of a fear that they’ll break it. Now we can encourage it so they can learn from it.

Shree Nayar,
Co-Director, Columbia Vision Lab and Graphics Center


May 2014

by Eric Butterman,