$500 Nano-Camera Takes 3-D Photos, Operates At Speed Of Light: Could Be Used For Medical Imaging, Interactive Gaming

By Rhonda J. Miller on November 30, 2013 5:24 PM EST

New Nano-Camera Captures Translucent Objects in 3D
A new nano-camera developed at MIT can caputure translucent objects, such as a glass vase, as well as objects seen through the vase. (Photo: MIT/Camera Culture / Rhonda J. Miller)

Neither rain, nor fog, nor translucent objects will smear the 3-D images from a new nano-camera that operates at the speed of light. The breakthrough nanophotography technology developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab will ring up at a mere $500 using many off-the-shelf parts. That's a dramatic reduction in cost, because scientists at the lab developed a trillion-second-per-frame camera technology, called femtophotography, a couple of years ago that used $500,000 in equipment. 

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"We introduced nanophotography, which is essentially a multi-depth camera that has one applications which allows it to visualize light as it travels through a scene," said MIT graduate student Achuta Kadambi, one of the developers of the camera, in a YouTube video. In the video, explaining the project, Kadambi shows how it's possible to observe light hitting a glass vase, then a stuffed animal, then another small toy figure, and then the back wall. "Observe that the back wall shows through the vase, which highlights the multipath capabilities of our camera," Kadambi said. 

"Changing environmental conditions, semitransparent surfaces, edges or motion all create multiple reflections that mix with the original signal and return to the camera, making it difficult to determine which is the correct measurement," according to phys.org.

The new nano-camera "improves upon the current technology that's used in cameras like the one in the second-generation Xbox Kinect," according to digitaltrends.com. "The MIT camera can't be fooled by obstacles. It incorporates technology that's similar to techniques for removing blurring in photos — the camera 'unsmears' the individual optical paths to create a sharper image."

The affordability makes the new nano-camera a candidate for use in interactive gaming to improve the accuracy of motion-tracking and gesture-recognition devices. The camera may also be one for the road — it could be used in cars as a detector device to avoid collisions. The potential use in medical imaging also looms large in the camera's future.

The new nano-camera is based on "Time of Flight" technology, similar to what is used in Microsoft's recently launched second-generation Kinect device, which calculates the location of objects by how long it take a light signal to reflect off a surface and return to the sensor. The new nano-camera differs from the existing devices based on this technology because it is not fooled by fog or translucent objects, said Kadambi..

"Using the current state of the art, such as the new Kinect, you cannot capture translucent objects in 3-D," Kadambi said. "That is because the light that bounces off the transparent object and the background smear into one pixel on the camera. Using our technique, you can generate 3-D models of translucent or near-transparent objects."

"We use a new method that allows us to encode information in time," said Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor of media arts and sciences and leader of the Camera Culture group at the MIT Media Lab, who developed the method with Kadambi, Refael Whyte, Ayush Bhandari and Christopher Barsi at MIT, along with Adrian Dorrington and Lee Streeter from the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

"When the data comes back, we can do calculations that are very common in the telecommunications world, to estimate different distances from the single signal," said Raskar. The nano-camera was introduced at the Siggraph Asia 2013 conference in Hong Kong held Nov. 19-22, which drew participants from more than 50 countries and featured papers and demonstrations of graphics, animation, art, and technology.

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