Scientists have developed a camera that's as flexible as an eyeball with all the zooming power of a conventional camera. And it's only the size of a nickel.
In principle, a camera works like a human eye. Light moves through the camera lens into a hollow structure, which focuses that light and resolves it into an image. But the human eye has one thing cameras don't: The ability to distort its lens, using the muscles of the eye. These muscles can tighten around the lens until bulges or stretches, which allow your eye to focus on near and far objects. In other words, your eye can do with one lens what it takes cameras several lenses to do. It can adjust to see close up and far away, or to take in a wide arc and examine a tiny area.
Cameras, on the other hand, can do something the eye can't do: Zoom. Once the eye has focused, it can't see an up-close version of the image it's focused on. That's the camera's specialty. By adjusting the distance between your camera's lenses, you can zoom in and out until it achieves a focused close up from twenty feet away. The trade off for this is a lot of bulk, in the form of the many lenses and the apparatus necessary for moving them around.
This new camera uses the best of both worlds. It has a flexible lens and a flexible layer of photo-detectors. Both are controlled by hydraulics, or precisely-injected volumes of water, to distort the camera's lenses much the way that muscles distort the eye. And the photo detectors at the back of the camera's eye can also distort and zoom in on images in a way your eyes can't.
The camera can be brought down to the size of a nickel and will look like a little half-globe. Scientists think that it will vastly expand robotic vision, and the accuracy of endoscopic medical procedures.