This throwable panoramic ball camera is really cool; I'm not sure exactly what it would be good for (sf writer Robert Silverberg has an idea), but I liked it.
(Panoramic Ball Camera video)
In this work, we present a throwable panoramic camera that solves these problems. The camera is thrown into the air and captures an image at the highest point of flight - when it is hardly moving. The camera takes full spherical panoramas, requires no preparation and images are taken instantaneously.
Our camera uses 36 fixed-focus 2 megapixel mobile phone camera modules. The camera modules are mounted in a robust, 3D-printed, ball-shaped enclosure that is padded with foam and handles just like a ball. Our camera contains an accelerometer which we use to measure launch acceleration. Integration lets us predict rise time to the highest point, where we trigger the exposure.
After catching the ball camera, pictures are downloaded in seconds using USB and automatically shown in our spherical panoramic viewer.
In his still enjoyable 1969 novel The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg writes about recording eyes which were a bit tougher than these real-life throwable panoramic ball cameras - you could drop them (by the thousands) from space onto a planet you wanted to know about. Here's what the output looked like:
Muller saw a cloud-wrapped planet... it could have been Venus... The recording eye pierced the cloud layer and revealed an unfamiliar, not very Earthlike planet. The soil looked moist and spongy, and rubbery trees that looked like giant toadstools thrust upward from it...
...three alien figures came strolling through the somber grove. They were elongated, almost spidery, with clusters of eight or ten jointed limbs depending from their narrow shoulders...
One of them paused, bent peered closely at the ground. It scooped up the eye that had been witnessing its activities.
(Read more about Silverberg's recording eyes)