A new imaging technology from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Toronto operates in both bright sunlight and darkness. A mathematical model programs the device so that the camera and its light source work together efficiently, eliminating extraneous light, or “noise,” that would otherwise wash out the signals needed to detect a scene’s contours.

One prototype based on the model synchronizes a laser projector with a common rolling-shutter camera — the type used in most smartphones — so that the camera detects light only from points being illuminated by the laser as it scans across the scene. The technique allows the device to work under extremely bright light or amidst highly reflected or diffused light; the camera can capture the shape of a lightbulb that has been turned on, for instance, as well as see through smoke.

The new approach could be used in the medical field to examine skin structures that otherwise would be obscured when light diffuses as it enters the skin. Manufacturers could also use the system to look for anomalies in shiny or mirrored components.

Depth cameras that can operate outdoors could be useful in automotive applications as well, such as in maintaining spacing between self-driving cars that are “platooned,” or following each other at close intervals.