Camera Helps MIT Researchers See Around Corners
March 21, 2012

Camera Helps MIT Researchers See Around Corners

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Lee Rannals for

Researchers at MIT Media Lab are experimenting with giving a camera the ability to shoot pictures of objects that are not in its line-of-sight.

The team wrote in the journal Nature Communications that they have developed a way to produce 3D images of a wooden figurine that was standing around the corner, in another model room.

The system fires a "femtosecond laser" to send bursts of light to reflect off surfaces like walls in order for the camera to see what objects my lie in an unforeseeable path.

The light bounces around, and re-emerges, striking a detector that is able to take measurements every few trillionths of a second, allowing researchers to see how far the light bursts travelled.

The system fires multiple femtosecond laser bursts at several spots, measuring the returning light at different angles.  Having the multiple angles allows the researchers to piece together a picture of the room's geometry, including the unseen wooden figurine.

A special camera is used in the research that is capable of recording images every 2 picoseconds, which is the time it takes light to travel just about 0.02 inches.

Some obvious applications for this type of technology can be in rescue situations, but one graduate student who worked on the project told RedOrbit he could see it being used in the medical industry.

"A popular application could be using it for surgery to access visual images to hidden pockets in human body," Otkrist Gupta, a researcher on the project and an MIT graduate student, told RedOrbit. "Something like this on your cellphone will make self examination of areas like the throat a lot easier.  A self driven car would be able to stop and save collisions by looking around corners."

He said the team already has ideas about how they could shrink the laser and imaging by using a technology like waveguides.

According to Gupta, they may also be able to bring the price down of a camera capable of performing similar to the one in the project to $2,000, compared to $200,000.

"Developing this for consumer use is definitely one of things we are pushing for," Gupta told RedOrbit.

He said one of the biggest eureka moments for him during this project happened at the end of 2010, when he found that "there is a functional relationship between streak images and real world volume."

"This was great because it proved that we weren't wasting our time and problem actually was solvable, we just needed to come up with new techniques." Gupta said.

His work with Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab who led the research, and colleagues could pave the way to bring James Bond type technology to the real world.