The Story of Frankencamera and Open-Source Firmware

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While some of us just can’t stop complaining about what our cameras can’t do, a couple of grad students at Stanford are actually doing something about it, or have been for the past four years.  How do you get the camera of your dreams?  If you are these students, you build a custom body, mount Canon glass, and adapt Linux into an open-source firmware.

Frankencamera:  Open-Source Firmware in a Custom Body

I’ve always been interested in building a camera.  I’ve known friends who built pinhole cameras out of trashcans.  But the Frankencamera has really trumped any ambitions I might have had, giving way to outright awe.  To say I’m interested is an understatement.  But why?  It’s not much to look at.  In fact, it’s actually quite ugly.  The black, boxy camera doesn’t seem to have all the controls you’d think of seeing on the exterior of a camera.  In fact, the only real giveaways as to this monstrosity’s purpose are the shadow of a handle and the seemingly-out-of-place Canon lens on the front.

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The Frankencamera in all its boxy, ugly glory.  

Then again, it doesn’t need to look like a normal camera because, well, it’s not.

Because the Frankencamera actually runs on a Linux build customized to control the camera’s mechanics.  If you go out and buy a Nikon or Canon feature, the firmware (the software that controls the hardware) is not custom.  It is mass produced, and probably offers you very little custom features – like the Fn Button or custom White Balance presets, to name some of the more common features you can change.

With open-source firmware, you can change the binary code of your camera’s user interface.

Want a camera that takes a photograph every 3.9 seconds?

Want a camera takes a photograph when you say “meow”?

Want a photograph that can name files whatever you want (e.g. summerday_06_23_state park_00000005)?

Or maybe presets that change depending on the lens – like a max ISO of 578 with a 50 mm f/1.8 lens, or a minimum shutter speed of 1/481 with a 200 mm lens?

You could even put video games on your camera and use the directional pad as a controller.

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An image taken with a hacked Nokia N95 running custom firmware.  

With the Frankcamera and its open-source firmware, a truly-custom camera isn’t just a tangible idea, but a reality waiting to happen.  In fact, it’s already halfway there:  Linux builds now exist for Nokia phones that essentially hack the phone’s hardware for its camera, allowing the user to change settings previously locked-out to users.  The implications?  Even before we see an open-source camera aimed at consumers, we may find ourselves hacking already-present hardware to change the things we don’t like about our cameras.  The most immediate niche for this would be Nokia phones currently running on Linux builds, but as other phones’ operating systems can be replaced with Linux, it stands to reason that over time, other phones’ cameras could be altered as well, giving us more control, or more automation, depending on the user.

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