Bigshot Camera Does Good

A long-awaited project has come to life for Shree Nayar: Bigshot, a kit that features a build-it-yourself digital camera he has designed to serve not only as a creative tool but also as a medium for education. More than four years in the making, Bigshot is the culmination of a dream for Nayar, who was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2008 as well as the American Academy of Arts of Sciences in 2011 for his pioneering contributions to computer vision and computational imaging.

Nayar aims to help children combine creativity with science using Bigshot.
—Photo by Jeffrey Schifman

“The camera is central to what we do,” says Nayar, T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science at Columbia Engineering. “It’s more than just a device that captures images in time, memories in pixels. It allows us to express ourselves and to communicate with each other in powerful ways—it has evolved into a technology with great social relevance.”

Bigshot, which Nayar developed for anyone interested in how cameras work (“kids” from 8 to 108), includes features like a hand-cranked power generator to supplement the rechargeable battery, and a “Swiss Army" lens with a wheel you can rotate to switch between regular, panoramic, and stereo or 3D modes. The kit is accompanied by an in-depth website that includes an interactive textbook with engaging demos of the science and engineering concepts related to the camera—optics, mechanics, electronics, and image processing.

The project was inspired by Born into Brothels, a documentary about desperately poor children living in the red light district of Calcutta who were given cameras by one of the directors. Nayar had already been thinking about how to leverage the appeal of the camera to make a broader social impact when he saw the film, and so he embarked on Bigshot as a side project to his research.

“As the kids learned photography, they began to look at their world with new eyes,” Nayar observes. “The film reaffirmed my belief that the camera is unique as a technology in its ability to inspire creativity.”

He notes that building Bigshot component by component exposes children to a wide range of science concepts, and they learn by doing: “Once they have a fully functioning digital camera on their hands, they get to enter the world of photography, storytelling, and documentation. The inherent nature of the camera enables us to juxtapose the sciences and the arts within a single learning experience.” Younger children benefit from working with their parents and teachers on the project; older teens and camera enthusiasts enjoy exploring the camera and website on their own.

At Columbia, Nayar worked with independent contractors to build about a dozen prototypes of the camera. He and a team led by graduate students Guru Krishnan and Brian Smith developed the first version of the educational website. They field-tested the prototypes and the website over a six-month period with hundreds of kids and their teachers in four cities—New York, Bangalore, Vung Tau, and Tokyo.

The camera kit was so well-received that Nayar founded Kimera (short for kid camera) in 2010 as a for-profit social venture to manufacture and distribute the Bigshot kits. His goal is to use some of Kimera’s royalties to donate cameras to kids in highly underprivileged communities through a program he calls Bigshots for Good. He is hoping children will share their photos online, and on the Bigshot website.  And he intends to partner with educational nonprofits and after-school programs—he already has one partnership inked with the Center for Arts Education in New York, to bring Bigshot to underserved students.   

“To me Bigshot is not just a kit, or a digital camera,” Nayar says. “It’s an experience that I hope will pique curiosity. One kid may be drawn to the science behind it and another may be inspired by the art of photography. Both would be equally good outcomes in my mind.”

—by Holly Evarts

Read more about Shree Nayar and other hot new faculty startups in the upcoming fall issue of Columbia Engineering Magazine due out in October.

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