A camera that allows you to see through objects.

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Scientists at Northwestern University in the United States are developing a high-resolution camera that can “see through objects” and potentially even the human body.

The study, published Nov. 17, describes a so-called “holographic” camera. It interprets the refraction of light to reconstitute an accurate vision of what any obstacle hides. The prototype currently created allows this reconstruction to be achieved in 46 milliseconds. “This technique turns the walls into mirrors. The advantage is that it can also work at night and in fog, ”says Florian Willomitzer, lead author of the study.

This specific field of study is called “no line of sight” or NLoS, in other words “non-line of sight images”, in French. Science, therefore, is not in its first attempt, not even in its first conclusive experiment in the matter. However, up to now these imaging systems have shown many limitations that drastically reduce the possible fields of application. Whether in terms of image quality, speed, or field of view size, the scientists behind this new project say all the brakes have now been released.

A holographic camera with multiple applications

Thanks to its sub-millimeter precision and image retransmission speed, scientists are already projecting potential uses in many fields. One can imagine, for example, using it in the field of road safety, to predict the arrival of a car around a corner, or an animal stumbling down the road through the forest. From a medical point of view, this camera could replace traditional imaging methods in a less invasive way for the body. In industry, fault diagnosis could be made easier as it is quite possible to use the tool while the machine is still running …

This diagram shows the technological configuration that allows you to see both around a wall and through an object. © Florian Willomitzer et al./Nature Communications

To allow our human eyes to see through obstacles in this way, the team’s invention uses “synthetic wavelength holography.” To capture these images of objects that are not directly accessible, the researchers use a light scattering system. A beam of light is sent by a laser, “bounces” off the object in question, and returns to the camera. There, an algorithm is in charge of reconstructing an image of the object from the data transmitted over the area of ​​scattered light.

But what data exactly? The information that interests the device is above all the “travel time” of the light to the object. By calculating exactly how long it took for lightning to reach a surface, it is possible to “trace” its contours and volumes with precision. Therefore, the purpose of the operation is to intercept the scattered light and analyze its temporal information to reveal the hidden object.

A synthetic lamp “made to measure”

However, there is a problem when we talk about light and speed … It is well known that light, precisely, goes extremely fast. Therefore, the risk was that the camera would need very fast and therefore very expensive detectors. To eliminate the need for fast detectors, Willomitzer and his colleagues fused light waves from two lasers to generate a light wave that is no longer natural, but synthetic, that can be specifically tailored for holographic imaging in different scattering scenarios. In short, we can say that they have created a “tailor-made” light wave for the needs of your device.

Does seeing through a wall and seeing through your skin sound a little different to be honest? Not so much for scientists. In both cases, the light is in front of an intermediary who scatters it and prevents a direct image of the target object from being seen. Florian Willomitzer takes an example that everyone has probably experienced at one point or another. When we place a light on the other side of our hand, we can clearly see a luminous point, which shows that the light “passes”, but therefore we do not see the shadow of our bones.

It is precisely because the light is scattered by the obstacle constituted by our skin, our muscles, etc., as a wall would. However, as shown in the diagram above, it is still possible to capture the return of light rays passing through this “scatterer” to make them speak. And it is not just visible light. The researchers are already imagining what others could do using the same method applied to other wavelengths: “Our current sensor prototypes use visible or infrared light, but the principle is universal and could be extended to other wavelengths. For example, the same method could be applied to radio waves for space exploration or underwater acoustic imaging. It can be applied to many areas, and we have only scratched the surface “…

Northwestern University

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