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Your Future Smartphone Camera Could See Through Your Skin

'HyperCam' uses infrared as well as visible light to see under surfaces.
October 16, 2015, 11:35am
The image on the left is taken with a normal camera. The image on the right is taken with Hypercam. Image: University of Washington

In the near future, returning from the grocery store with rotten fruit and veg could be a thing of the past. How? Because researchers want to bring a mini infrared camera to your smartphone that would act as a "food safety app."

Computer science and electrical engineering researchers at Washington University and Microsoft have developed HyperCam, a low-cost hyperspectral camera. In a paper that they presented at the UbiComp 2015 conference, the team describes how it uses both visible and near-infrared light to pierce through surfaces, and snap up details that would be otherwise invisible to the naked eye. The researchers want to bring the tech to consumer smartphones so that it can be used in everything from food safety to biometrics and gesture recognition.


"With this kind of camera, you could go to the grocery store and know what produce to pick by looking underneath the skin and seeing if there's anything wrong inside. It's like having a food safety app in your pocket," Shwetak Patel, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, said in a press statement.

Regular cameras separate visible light into blue, green, and red bands, creating images by mixing combinations of those colors. Infrared cameras, such as HyperCam, illuminate a scene in 17 wavelengths by using both the visible and near-infrared parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

"When you look at a scene with a naked eye or a normal camera, you're mostly seeing colors. You can say, 'Oh, that's a pair of blue pants,'" explained lead author Mayank Goel, a UW computer science and engineering doctoral student and Microsoft Research graduate fellow, in a statement. "With a hyperspectral camera, you're looking at the actual material that something is made of. You can see the difference between blue denim and blue cotton."

So far, the researchers have come across a few hiccups. Namely, the HyperCam doesn't work so well in areas of bright light, and the difficulty of organizing the higher volume of frames it produces. Though they haven't gone into much detail about how exactly it would work as a biometric device (a slightly creepier sounding application of the tech), it would be pretty cool to have a miniature infrared cam attached onto your regular phone.