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In 2019, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Universidad de Zaragoza in Spain announced their breakthrough device - a “virtual camera” that can see around corners. The project is part of a wider $6 million program funded in part by NASA and the US military.
The team's research was published in August 2019 in Nature, and have lead to investigations into what this mysterious technology could achieve for us.
A Virtual Camera that Sees Around Corners
While it may take another year until the camera is ready to leave the laboratory, its creators are already envisioning a number of important applications for it. For example, rescue missions seeking to find people lost in caves or trapped in rubble following a natural disaster or an accident will be able to find survivors far more quickly with this camera.
Similarly, firefighters could use the technology to detect people trapped inside burning buildings, reducing the risk of manual searches, and increasing survival rates. Police will also potentially be able to use it to gain visuals of shooters hidden inside buildings.
In particular, there will be many applications within the military, who will want to use it to increase vision in house-to-house fighting, which frequently occurred in Iraq, to reduce friendly fire. The military may also find the camera useful for studying and investigating the ground for tunnels.
This leads to another potential application - investigating caves on the moon. NASA has plans to put astronauts on the moon for extended periods, and these caves may provide a sheltered place for them to live.
Scientists have already been developing the camera for a number of years, and the last decade especially has seen a particular acceleration in progress. Previous innovations had produced cameras that had the capabilities to see just one or two objects hidden out of the field of vision, but the new improvement is able to recreate entire details in a room that is not visible.
While a standard wall cannot act as a mirror, it can tell us about what’s around the corner in the way it scatters incident light. The camera works through reading the patterns created by this incident light scatter to reconstruct what’s happening around the corner. It does this using phase vectors that encode the light waves’ amplitude and frequency, amongst other key factors.
Non-Line-of-Sight (NLOS) Imaging
Non-line-of-sight (NLOS) imaging turns decoding of complicated light scattering into a classical optics problem by reframing the image as a phasor field undergoing the same diffraction as a physical wave. This means that conventional line-of-sight (LOS) imaging models can be used to reconstruct images. This reframing has been crucial in unlocking the power to see objects that are out of the line-of-sight.
While the technology has current limitations, for example, the models can only identify isolated objects without a range of depth, it is already fully capable of creating reconstructions of very large scenes in real-time with quite intricate detail.
The development of this kind of technology is expected to maintain its pace, with the possibility for cameras to be developed for applications in robotics, medical imaging, autonomous vehicles, the military, the police, the fire service, space exploration, and more.
In just 12 months' time, we expect to see the camera created by the American-Spanish team leaving the lab and finding its feet in real-world applications.