Superman’s X-ray vision may come to your smartphone

Researchers have built a smartphone-fitting tiny chip that can see through solid objects.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and the Seoul National University (SNU) have developed an imager chip that could be used to peer inside packages or behind walls.

“This technology is like Superman’s X-ray vision. Of course, we use signals at 200 gigahertz to 400 gigahertz instead of X-rays, which can be harmful,” said Dr. Kenneth K. O, director of the Texas Analog Center of Excellence (TxACE).

At least in theory, smartphones using such a chip would enable users to find studs, wiring behind walls, cracks in pipes, and perform other tasks that require looking behind solid objects.

The imager is designed to emit 300-GHz signals that are invisible to the human eye. Similar technology is used on stationary passenger screens in many American airports.

“We designed the chip without lenses or optics so that it could fit into a mobile device. The pixels, which create images by detecting signals reflected from a target object, have the shape of a 0.5-mm square, about the size of a grain of sand,” Dr. Wooyeol Choi, assistant professor at SNU, said.

Sensing their creation could be abused for malicious purposes, the researchers claim that they’ve designed the chip to only work in close proximity, about one inch from an object.

The imager’s inventors say that if thieves wanted to use the device to peep inside somebody’s purse or bag, they’d have to be so close that the victim would be fully aware of what’s happening.

The microchip was first demonstrated in 2022 when researchers used it to image objects through fog, dust, and other obstacles that allow some light to come through. The latest model, however, allowed researchers to view various objects through cardboard around one centimeter away from the imager.

“It took 15 years of research that improved pixel performance by 100 million times, combined with digital signal processing techniques, to make this imaging demonstration possible. This disruptive technology shows the potential capability of true THz imaging,” said Dr. Brian Ginsburg, director of RF/mmW and high-speed research at TI’s Kilby Labs.