Let's say you want to 3D print a replica of an object in your home. The first step, of course, is capturing a detailed 3D scan — a process that's currently accomplished to varying degrees of accuracy with a desktop unit or more expensive and bulky professional models. But with a new "camera sensor" designed by CalTech researchers under electrical engineer Ali Hajimiri, you may one day be able to record a 3D scan with nothing other than your smartphone.
The tiny chip, called a nanophotonic coherent imager, uses a form of LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) technology to capture height, width, and depth information from each pixel. LIDAR, which shines a laser on the target and then analyzes the light waves that are reflected back to the sensor, are best known for their use in precision-guided missile systems and self-driving cars.
Each "pixel" is a tiny LIDAR
While LIDAR itself isn't new, Hajimiri explains that "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." Each "pixel" on the new sensor can individually analyze the phase, frequency, and intensity of the reflected waves, producing a single piece of 3D data. The data from all of the pixels combined can produce a full 3D scan. In addition, the researchers' implementation allows for an incredibly tiny and low-cost scanner, all while maintaining accuracy. According to the researchers, the chip can produce scans that are within microns of the original.
The chip produced by the lab currently only has 16 pixels on it — not enough to capture a scan of any real objects without moving it slightly after taking each "picture." (That's how they took the scan of the penny above). But researchers say that the product could easily be scaled up to a model with hundreds of thousands of pixels, providing a new, low-cost way for smartphones, driverless cars, and a whole host of other products to capture precise 3D image data.