Camera chip could turn phones into 3D scanners

Scaling up the Caltech device could make it useful for applications such as driverless cars

This 3D scan of a U.S. penny was created with a tiny camera chip developed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

This 3D scan of a U.S. penny was created with a tiny camera chip developed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

U.S. researchers have developed a camera chip that could give smartphones the ability to take 3D scans of everyday objects, a sought-after feature in the 3D-printing world.

Engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) said their device is based on a cheap silicon chip less than 1 millimeter square and it can produce 3D scans with extremely fine resolution.

The chips could be incorporated into phones and the data could be sent to 3D printers to duplicate scanned objects, eliminating the need to use large desktop devices.

The device works by shining beams of light, which are perfectly aligned, on a targeted object. It then detects subtle differences in the light that is reflected back from that object. The differences help it build a digital 3D image of the target.

To shine the light, the device uses an array of tiny LIDAR (light detection and ranging) laser beam scanners. Useful for measuring distance, LIDAR elements have been used for years in applications such as navigation for driverless cars and robots.

The light that is reflected off the object is picked up by a small 4 x 4 grid of detectors, as the researchers describe in a study published in the journal Optics Express..

The detectors act like pixels in that they measure the phase, frequency and intensity of the incoming light and assign a distance value to each pixel in the 3D image of the object that has been scanned.

The researchers used the proof of concept camera chip to create a 3D scan of a U.S. penny from half a meter away. The scan features micron-level resolution as well as the larger undulations on the penny's surface that are nearly invisible to the naked eye.

The 16-pixel array could be increased to hundreds of thousands to create larger, more powerful arrays for applications such as helping driverless cars avoid obstacles, according to Caltech.

"The small size and high quality of this new chip-based imager will result in significant cost reductions, which will enable thousands of new uses for such systems by incorporating them into personal devices such as smartphones," Caltech electrical engineering professor Ali Hajimiri said in a release last week.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Internet-based applications and servicesconsumer electronicssmartphonesCaltechinternetdigital cameras

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Tim Hornyak

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell

LIFEBOOK UH574

The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi

STYLISTIC Q702

The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott

STYLISTIC Q702

My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?