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Phones that Can See Through Walls
Phones that Can See Through Walls

By Barry Levine
April 20, 2012 10:18AM

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A CMOS sensor in a phone that could read terahertz wavelengths could have countless useful applications. These can include detecting cancer tumors, diagnosing disease through breath analysis, monitoring air toxicity, detection of counterfeit money, and even replacing medical X-rays. UT-Dallas scientists say they will address privacy issues.

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If you think smartphones have virtually reached the end of their evolutionary ladder, get ready. Researchers are working on a chip that would allow cell phones to see through walls, paper and, yes, clothing.

The new device, if and when it comes to market, could give any owner one of Superman's signature powers. A team of scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas has presented research at a recent International Solid-States Circuit Conference about new microchip technology that uses terahertz (THz) band wavelengths, which can travel through solid objects, to create images.

'Major Concern' Is Privacy

The team is working on building a functioning imaging system.

The terahertz band is located between the microwave and infrared wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, and it can penetrate through objects, not unlike x-rays. Previous devices to read those wavelengths have been large, bulky and relatively expensive.

The team envisions using Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor, or CMOS, chips that are designed to receive and image THz waves. Lest you imagine that everyone would then be as revealed as in the Garden of Eden, the researchers have decided to limit the viewing capability to 4 inches.

Dr. Kenneth O, director of the Texas Analog Center of Excellence at UT Dallas and the leader of the research team, told news media that "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."

"We are talking about a distance of 10 centimeters," he said, which would make it difficult to look through someone's clothing -- unless he or she wanted you to do so.

Useful Applications

Such a seeing-through device could have countless useful applications. These can include detecting cancer tumors, diagnosing disease through breath analysis, monitoring air toxicity, detection of counterfeit money, finding studs in walls, locating hidden cracks in pottery, and authenticating documents. There's also the possibility that such a device could be used in place of x-rays for medical purposes.

Additionally, THz bands have more potential channels for communication than the bandwidths currently used for wireless communications, thus possibly opening up new wireless capacity.

Dr. O said in a statement that "there are all kinds of things you could be able to do that we just haven't yet thought about."

Avi Greengart, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, joked that such technology might be better located on Google's coming enhanced-reality glasses.

He said he expected such technology was "more likely" to find a home in specialized devices, such as ones designed specifically for medical uses. However, Greengart added, "someone will try it in cell phones," especially if there are consumer-useful applications, such as detecting if someone is drunk.

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Posted: 2012-04-28 @ 8:47pm PT
What would stop a hacker from modifying this chip to go way beyond the limits of the 4 inches?

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