Have MIT camera, will peek around corners

Welcome to the world of femtophotography, which leans heavily on lasers and algorithms to spot the hidden object and get a picture. In 3D.

Jon Skillings Editorial director
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Expertise AI, tech, language, grammar, writing, editing Credentials
  • 30 years experience at tech and consumer publications, print and online. Five years in the US Army as a translator (German and Polish).
Jon Skillings
2 min read
With the advent of MIT's camera that sees around corners, you can run, but you can't hide. MIT

Researchers at MIT like what they see so far from a camera that can perform a nifty trick: peer around a corner.

And it captures a 3D image to boot.

The innovative process is called femtophotography, after the incredibly quick laser pulses involved; they're measured in quadrillionths of a second. Those bursts of light bounce around off ordinary doors or walls or floors -- mirrors need not apply -- and make their way back to a picosecond-accurate detector at the camera (picoseconds = trillionths of a second) that records the elapsed time and then does the math on how the light bursts traveled.

The system runs through the drill multiple times in that blink of an eye, with the light bursts traveling several different routes to provide a more complete 3D image.

Or to put it in a more mind-blowing perspective, the camera captures all that target object illumination at the equivalent of roughly 1 trillion frames per second. Much more detail is available at this FAQ on the Camera Culture site.

MIT camera grabs 3D images 'round corners (images)

See all photos

This computational photography -- it's all about the algorithms -- is happening on a small scale at the moment: The system records its images from a space measuring 40 centimeters to a side.

The imaging device was developed by the MIT Media Lab's Camera Culture group in collaboration with Bawendi Lab in the Department of Chemistry at MIT. They also described their work in a paper appearing this week in the journal Nature Communications. Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at the Media Lab, led the research effort.

Now, these 3D images aren't exactly portrait quality yet, but they're recognizable, and that may be good enough for some of the uses the researchers envision -- for instance, helping first responders navigate dangerous environments, or beefing up the collision-avoidance skills of tomorrow's smart cars.

Of course, if the device ever gets out of the lab, there'd no doubt be some prospective buyers among the spies and private eyes of the world.