This Camera Films At The Speed Of Light

And you thought watching The Hobbit in 60fps was weird? At 15 billion fps, this camera from Heriot Watt University captures video so fast that you can actually watch individual photons move across a room and reconstruct the form of objects around corners based only on the light that they scatter.

Take laser beams, for example. Under normal circumstances, say, when you’re looking at them with your puny human eyes, they appear as single, coherent beams. However, the Heriot Watt camera, which was developed by a team led by Jonathan Leach and recently debuted at the Summer Science Exhibition (though not the first such system we’ve seen), is comprised of a 32 x 32 array of single-photon sensitive pixels — that is, it can detect the strike of a single photon roughly 10 times more sensitive than the human eye. It boasts an effective exposure time of just 67 picoseconds, and it spools so fast that it sees lasers not as coherent beams but as convoys of individual photons blasting through space.

In order to detect and identify objects out of the camera’s line of sight, the camera works in tandem with a pulsed light source. When a laser beam from the light source strikes a hidden object, some of the photons from the beam scatter randomly and occasionally bounce back the same route that they took to get there. The camera measures the time that it took for the laser to travel to the object and the time it took for each scattered photon to make its way back to the photosensor array.

By measuring the time that it took for individual scattered photons reach each array pixel, the system can then reconstruct what it is that’s refracting them according to its individual photonic signature. Cars, coffee cups, and cats all have specific and unique signatures.

This technology, though still very much bound to the laboratory, could one day open up a whole new class of imaging devices. They could be used for military reconnaissance, Search and Rescue operations, or even integrated into a car’s forward-looking safety monitors. Heck, they have already got FLIR — might as well let cars see around blind corners while we’re at it. [Motherboard]