Last December, MIT Media Lab researchers caused a stir by releasing a slow-motion video of a burst of light traveling the length of a plastic bottle. But the experimental setup that enabled that video was designed for a much different application: a camera that can see around corners.

The researchers used their system to produce recognizable 3D images of a wooden figurine and foam cutouts outside their camera’s line of sight. The research could ultimately lead to imaging systems that allow emergency responders to evaluate dangerous environments, or vehicle navigation systems that can negotiate blind turns.

The principle behind the system is essentially that of the periscope. But instead of using angled mirrors to redirect light, the system uses ordinary walls, doors, or floors — surfaces that aren’t generally thought of as reflective.

The system exploits a femtosecond laser, which emits bursts of light so short that their duration is measured in quadrillionths of a second. To peer into a room that’s outside its line of sight, the system might fire femtosecond bursts of laser light at the wall opposite the doorway. The light would reflect off the wall and into the room, then bounce around and re-emerge, ultimately striking a detector that can take measurements every few picoseconds, or trillionths of a second. Because the light bursts are so short, the system can gauge how far they’ve traveled by measuring the time it takes them to reach the detector.

The system performs this procedure several times, bouncing light off several different spots on the wall, so that it enters the room at several different angles. The detector, too, measures the returning light at different angles. By comparing the times at which returning light strikes different parts of the detector, the system can piece together a picture of the room’s geometry.

A future version of the system could be used by firefighters looking for people in burning buildings or police determining whether rooms are safe to enter, or by vehicle navigation systems, which could bounce light off the ground to look around blind corners. It could also be used with endoscopic medical devices to produce images of previously obscure regions of the human body.

The math required to knit multiple femtosecond-laser measurements into visual images is complicated, but builds on research in related fields. The image-reconstruction algorithm uses a technique called filtered back-projection, which is the basis of CAT scans.

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