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 newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags smartphonesinternetconsumer electronicsdigital camerasInternet-based applications and servicesCaltech

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

Essentials

Mobile

Exec

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?