Smartphone Camera Chip Could Let You Print Any 3-D Object You See

A new 3-D imager makes it possible to capture objects with “micron-level” resolution.
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A new 3-D imager makes it possible to capture objects with “micron-level” resolution.
Photo credit: Ali Hajimiri/Caltech

Photo credit: Ali Hajimiri/Caltech

Instead of having to ask where someone got that purse or those shoes, a picture of the object taken by your smartphone and sent to a 3-D printer could be all you need to have its replica in minutes.

A new camera chip, or nanophotonic coherent imager, developed by engineers at Caltech contains a high-resolution 3-D imager that’s said to provide the “highest depth-measurement accuracy of any such nanophotonic 3-D imaging device,” according to Caltech.

The chip’s effectiveness is all thanks to coherence, an optical term for when two light waves are exactly aligned with one another. When coherent light is reflected off the object, each of the 16 pixels within the chip can evaluate the object’s size and distance from the camera.

“Each pixel on the chip is an independent interferometer — an instrument that uses the interference of light waves to make precise measurements — which detects the phase and frequency of the signal in addition to the intensity,” Ali Hajimiri, an electrical engineering professor at Caltech who is leading the project, told the Caltech news site.

Since the chip only has 16 pixels at the moment, the images of the 3-D objects cannot exceed 16 pixels. However, the Caltech team has figured out how to divide an object’s imaging into four-pixel-by-four-pixel sections, which has allowed them to create a 3-D image of a penny with micron-level resolution so that even the penny’s “hills and valleys” are visible despite the fact that the photo was taken 1.5 feet away.

While imaging devices that can scan an object’s height, width and depth to make 3-D replicas aren’t new, this is the first device that’s small enough (it’s less than a millimeter in size) and inexpensive enough to be incorporated into personal devices such as smartphones, Hajimiri told the Caltech news site. All that’s left is to connect those smartphones to 3-D printers and the replica-making can begin.