A team led by Shree K. Nayar, computer science professor at Columbia Engineering, has invented a prototype video camera that is the first to be fully self-powered. (Computer Vision Laboratory, Columbia Engineering)

The above video isn't very impressive at first blush: The quality is so bad that it looks like something a horror movie villain would show you on a loop to drive you insane. But it's actually a pretty big deal.

[MIT researchers can listen to your conversation by watching your potato chip bag]

The video comes from a newly designed digital camera that never needs any outside power. A group of Columbia University researchers are presenting the new tech next week at the International Conference on Computational Photography at Rice University in Houston. Here's how it works:

A normal digital camera holds an image sensor covered in pixels, each of which uses a photodiode to react to light. These photodiodes produce electrical currents, and the strength of the current tells the pixel how intense the light falling on it is. The variations in light intensity are translated to an image.

But image sensors aren't the only place where photodiodes react to light: They're what give solar panels the power to convert sunlight to electricity. Lead researcher Shree K. Nayar decided to try to adapt the photodiodes in a camera so that they'd also function the way solar panel photodiodes do, harvesting energy.

[Old Blu-ray disks could help make better solar panels]

The prototype they're presenting uses off-the-shelf components and a 3D printed body to produce 30 by 40 pixel images. The sensors are constantly toggling between image taking and energy harvesting mode. And when the user isn't taking a photo, they can even charge other devices using the camera's power.

"A few different designs for image sensors that can harvest energy have been proposed in the past. However, our prototype is the first demonstration of a fully self-powered video camera," Nayar said in a statement. "And, even though we've used off-the-shelf components to demonstrate our design, our sensor architecture easily lends itself to a compact solid-state imaging chip. We believe our results are a significant step forward in developing an entirely new generation of cameras that can function for a very long duration--ideally, forever--without being externally powered."

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