This Superman-Inspired Chip Is Bringing X-Ray Vision To Regular Smartphones

In a groundbreaking development, researchers have created an imager chip inspired by Superman’s X-ray vision that could enable regular smartphones to identify objects behind walls or within packages. This innovative technology, developed by engineers from the University of Texas at Dallas and Seoul National University, focuses on compactness and improved image quality, making it suitable for integration into mobile devices.

The chip, a 1×3 array of high-frequency transceiver pixels operating at 300 GHz, emits signals in the millimeter-wave band, situated between microwaves and infrared on the electromagnetic spectrum. These signals, invisible to the human eye and safe for human exposure, are similar to those used in airport screening devices. However, this new technology is miniaturized to fit into mobile phones.

The device can detect studs, wooden beams, wiring behind walls, cracks in pipes, and the contents of envelopes and packages. It also holds potential applications in the medical field. The imager chip incorporates a low-noise amplifier, a differential gain stage, and a sophisticated mixer to extract signal amplitude and phase, all within an area about half the wavelength of the signal used.

Dr. Wooyeol Choi, assistant professor at Seoul National University, explained, “We designed the chip without lenses or optics so that it could fit into a mobile device. The pixels, which create images by detecting signals reflected from a target object, are about the size of a grain of sand.” Importantly, the technology is designed with privacy in mind, functioning only when used up close—about an inch away from an object. This proximity requirement ensures that any unauthorized scanning attempts would be noticeable.

Experimental tests revealed that two of these chips could image a target about 1 cm away through a cardboard cover without lenses. By combining the transceivers’ phase and amplitude outputs, the effective aperture is increased, significantly enhancing image quality and resolution. Additionally, phase combination improves isolation between transmitting and receiving pairs by about 10 dB, reaching around 70 dB, thus limiting interference and extending the stand-off range.

Researchers are working on the next iteration of the chip, which aims to record photos from up to 5 inches away, enhancing its ability to view smaller objects. This breakthrough in short-range imaging could revolutionize various fields, paving the way for advanced applications in technology and medicine.

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