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3-D cameras for cellphones

January 6, 2012 | Hogan Keyser
depthmap.jpgDepth-sensing cameras can produce 'depth maps' like this one, in which distances are depicted as shades on a gray-scale spectrum (lighter objects are closer, darker ones farther away) (credit: Dominic/Flickr)

January 6, 2012 by -- Imagine a high-quality 3-D camera that provides more-accurate depth information than the Microsoft Kinect, has a greater range, and works under all lighting conditions -- but is so small, cheap and power-efficient that it could be incorporated into a cellphone at very little extra cost.

That's the promise of recent work by Vivek Goyal, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, and his group at MIT's Research Lab of Electronics.

When Microsoft's Kinect -- a device that lets Xbox users control games with physical gestures -- hit the market, computer scientists immediately began hacking it. A black plastic bar about 11 inches wide with an infrared rangefinder and a camera built in, the Kinect produces a visual map of the scene before it, with information about the distance to individual objects. At MIT alone, researchers have used the Kinect to create a "Minority Report"-style computer interface, a navigation system for miniature robotic helicopters and a holographic-video transmitter, among other things.

"3-D acquisition has become a really hot topic," Goyal says. "In consumer electronics, people are very interested in 3-D for immersive communication, but then they're also interested in it for human-computer interaction." Gestural interfaces make it much easier for multiple people to interact with a computer at once -- as in the dance games the Kinect has popularized.

The system uses a pulse of infrared laser light fired at a scene; the camera then measures the time it takes the light to return from objects at different distances.

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