We describe the ZEUS phasing camera for future extremely large telescopes (ELTs) based on the Zernike phase contrast method. A prototype instrument is under construction for implementation in the Active Phasing Experiment (APE), a VLT test bed scheduled for operation in 2007. The paper describes theoretical aspects of the method and its experimental validation, as well as the instrumental implementation for APE. Aspects of its implementation in an ELT are also discussed. While the classical Zernike method uses a phase mask with diameter approximately equal to the Airy disk, we employ a mask the size of the seeing disk. This allows us to overcome the problems related to atmospheric turbulence, whose low spatial frequency phase errors are much larger than the co-phasing errors to be measured. The thickness (OPD) of the mask can be set to lambda/4 - as in the classical case - for maximum signal strength, but for initial phasing where phase errors are much larger than the sensor's linear range (+/-lambda/4), a thinner mask produces a cleaner signal more easily exploitable, leaving the signal analysis more robust. A multi wavelength approach is implemented in order to extend the capture range of the sensor, and the ultimate precision is reached using an iterative approach. End-to-end simulations indicating an achievable precision within the required precision will be shown.© (2006) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.