Space & Innovation

Superhuman Camera Sees Around Corners, Scans Books

An inventor of futuristic imagining technology just won $500,000 for his innovative work.

Inventor and researcher Ramesh Raskar is so fascinated by super-human vision that he actually pioneered technologies to achieve it. His novel imaging techniques led to cameras that can illuminate objects hidden around corners and read the pages in a closed book.

Raskar, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and head of the MIT Media Lab's Camera Culture Group, has worked on cameras that can perform amazing feats. One of his techniques, called femto-photography, uses a camera and software to visualize the propagation of light at about half a trillion frames per second. That's ultra-fast. It's so fast that a blink of the human eye is ridiculously slow in comparison.

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In femto-photography, a laser pulse fires and scatters light all over the place. Some of it hits an object hidden around the corner from the camera. Yet the camera is powerful enough to capture dozens of these sneaky images, which then get analyzed and pieced together, showing the object in three dimensions.

Another technique Raskar and his colleagues developed can read individual pages in a closed book. Their prototype system extracts and localizes single pages through special time-gated terahertz spectral analysis. It accurately picked up terahertz radiation signals from the paper and filtered out the noise to show letters on the first nine pages in a stack, MIT News reported. This week Raskar won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prizehonoring outstanding mid-career inventors.

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Although I can imagine super-human vision being used for nefarious ends, Raskar isn't that kind of guy. He envisions his research helping people drive safely through fog, detecting tumor cells in a non-invasive way and reading rare books. He told the Lemelson-MIT program he was surprised to learn that 90 percent of book archives are too fragile to be shared with the public.

"Our research can only scan first 9 pages," he said. "But fundamentally, there is nothing stopping anyone else to build on top of our solution to penetrate deeper into more pages."

This imaging technique brought to mind Alastor Moody from the "Harry Potter" universe, whose magical eye could see in all directions, through walls, and past invisibility cloaks. Raskar doesn't need magic to make the invisible visible, though. His tech is the real deal.

DaVinci's Inventions

Breathing Device Leonardo da Vinci was famously fascinated with translating nature's inventiveness into human technology. If birds can fly, he wrote, we not us? And likewise, if fish can breathe underwater... This model of an underwater breathing device, a predecessor to scuba gear, is thought to have been designed by da Vinci in the year 1508. It consists of animal skins that would serve as a sack around the swimmer's head, connected by a tube to the surface. The model was built based on drawings in da Vinci's journals.

Flying Machine This pen and ink sketch, circa 1500, is one of da Vinci's more famous designs. Though it was never built, da Vinci's "ornithopter" flying machine is thought by some to have inspired the first helicopter.

Wings Da Vinci produced more than 100 drawings illustrating his theories on flight. For him, as for modern scientists, detailed observation was a frequent starting point. He believed that the best answer to most any problem could be found in nature. This model, consisting of a jointed framework covered in a single layer of cloth and a hang glider, represents a drawing inspired by the wings of a bat. Frank Fehrenbach, a professor of art and art history at Harvard University and da Vinci expert, says the contraption stands out among da Vinci's inventions: "My favorites are Leonardo's hang-glider...because of its poetics of discovery; his scythed chariots because of their wonderful absurdity in warfare; and his self-propelled cart intended as a theater machine."

Walking on Water This model of a water-walking system conceived by da Vinci early in his life is displayed at the Leonardo Museum in Vinci, Italy, where he was born in 1452. In his drawings Leonardo referred to the contraption as "skis with which one can walk on water." "Leonardo's inspirations came from his capacity to assimilate his thought and imagination to functions and processes in nature," says Fehrenbach. "Nature was the master to compete with."

Links and Chains Though many of da Vinci's creations were never built, his ruminations on basic mechanics would serve as a model for gear and pulley systems in machinery for centuries to come. Pictured here are two of the 700 pages of manuscript found in the National Library of Madrid in 1967, having been lost for nearly two centuries. At right are links and chain drivers, much like those on modern bicycles. An escapement, upper left, is used to convert linear motion into rotary motion as a plunger is pushed down. At left center are two simple release mechanisms, like those found today in cranes.

Cannon Da Vinci is also well known for his war machines. Pictured here is a water-powered, gear-driven machine for manufacturing cannon barrels.

Crossbow This page from da Vinci's notebook details his most famous crossbow, including winding mechanism and trigger. Scholars doubt d Vinci or anyone in his day built this crossbow, but similar bows were part of Greek and Roman artillery long before da Vinci's birth.

Tank This cutaway view shows a 20th century model of a tank designed by da Vinci. Constructed of wood on a round base topped by a cone-shaped shell, its guns are evenly spaced, emerging from the base. Shaped to withstand the cannonballs of the day, it has four independent wheels propelled by manpower and may be driven in any direction.

Wagon The lifting device pictured here would use a log as a lever to bring a stone pillar into an upright position. The wagon is turned over with the pillar, then a rope would pull the log back up to lift the wagon and pillar. As with many da Vinci designs, it is unclear whether the device was ever used, or even built. Still, da Vinci was truly in a league of his own as an inventor, says Fehrenbach, with one caveat: "Benjamin Franklin didn't have Leonardo's imaginative mind, but was far more practical."