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X-Ray Vision Is Coming, Here's How

In reality, x-ray vision is no longer science fiction. It’s not quite like Superman — squint and see the neighbors planning a terrorist attack — but this year scientists have developed a couple of ways to potentially let you see through walls.

Whenever my friends and I play that “If you could have any superpower…” game, I always go with x-ray vision. Seems a little silly, I know. Why not super strength? I’d probably break stuff unintentionally. Why not flying? The FAA would keep me grounded. So then why x-ray vision? Schemes, my friends. Schemes. If you could see through walls, you could probably come up with all kinds of schemes! At least in my comic book version of life that’s true.

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In reality, x-ray vision is no longer science fiction. It’s not quite like Superman — squint and see the neighbors planning a terrorist attack — but this year scientists have developed a couple of ways to potentially let you see through walls. Uses for the technology venture well beyond crime-fighting activities, too. It could lead to breakthroughs in medicine, industry, and national security.

Perhaps the most promising potential x-ray vision technology involves measuring terahertz waves. These are the invisible light waves that lie between microwaves and infrared on the electromagnetic spectrum. Terahertz waves can be detected through opaque objects, and so creating a device that analyzes these waves and constructs a visible image out of them would technically work like x-ray vision. A team of scientists from the University of Texas at Dallas have done just that and developed a chip that can be attached to your smartphone. This would then give you the ability to see through walls.

“The major concern for this technology is privacy, so we’ve made it that you need to place the imaging device very close to the object you are looking at,” said Professor Kenneth O, who led the research. “We are talking about a distance of 10 centimeters, so it would be very difficult for someone to sneak up on you and … you know.” There are other downsides to messing around with terahertz radiation, as well. You might remember the controversy over the new bodyscanners that the Transportation Security Administration installed at airports. In brief, there was evidence that terahertz radiation tore apart our DNA. However, those machines pumped terahertz radiation through human bodies, while the new x-ray vision chip just processes existing terahertz radiation.

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The other approach to x-ray vision involves manipulating the light in our visual spectrum. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have developed technology that can’t quite let you see through walls but does let you see through translucent objects like frosted glass.

This diagram, from PSFK, shows how the Weizmann researchers’ device takes a blurred image, divides it into smaller sections, and recombines them into an imperfect, but passable, image.

Essentially, frosted glass works because it scatters the light that hits it from one side so that it’s too jumbled to see from the other side. To get around this, the Israeli scientists simply built a camera that descrambles the light and basically puts it back together again. Seeing through frosted glass isn’t that exciting, but they hope the technology will come in handy for the military and for firefighters who could theoretically use the camera to see through a smoky room.

For now, the market for an x-ray vision device is relatively limited so development of the technology is coming along slowly. Let’s be honest, though. We’re going to stop paying attention for two seconds, and then Google is going to invent this and find some way to sell ads onto it. In that case, I might rethink my choice of superpower. Flying would be pretty cool…

Image via Foretuit