Here we are now, entertain us: Caltech team designs micro, high-res 3D imager

Researchers see bright future in camera chip


Vid Boffins working for Caltech have developed a tiny, high-resolution 3D imager that they hope could eventually be used in consumer devices such as smartphones.

They claimed that it could “soon be possible” to reproduce “a replica accurate to within microns” of an original object snapped on a mobile device.

Caltech said:

Any time you want to make an exact copy of an object with a 3D printer, the first step is to produce a high-resolution scan of the object with a 3D camera that measures its height, width, and depth.

Such 3D imaging has been around for decades, but the most sensitive systems generally are too large and expensive to be used in consumer applications.

The research team’s new device – which they dubbed a nanophotonic coherent imager (NCI) – is loaded with a cheap silicon chip that is less than a millimetre square in size.

Work was carried out in the lab of electrical engineering prof, Ali Hajimiri, who had this to say about the NCI:

“Each pixel on the chip is an independent interferometer – an instrument that uses the interference of light waves to make precise measurement – which detects the phase and frequency of the signal in addition to the intensity.”

It uses a detection and ranging tech known as LIDAR – which has been utilised to, for example, get high-res digital elevation models.

“By having an array of tiny LIDARs on our coherent imager, we can simultaneously image different parts of an object or a scene without the need for any mechanical movements within the imager,” said Prof Hajimiri.

For now, a proof-of-concept of the NCI can only produce 3D images at just 16 pixels at any given time. Researchers are apparently beavering away at methods for imaging larger objects.

“The small size and high quality of this new chip-based imager will result in significant cost reductions, which will enable thousands new of uses for such systems by incorporating them into personal devices such as smartphones,” Hajimiri claimed.

His team hope that the imager could one day be applied to the likes of driverless cars and finicky human machine interfaces.