Scientists Invent Smartphone Chip That Peers Through Barriers With Electromagnetic Waves

For more than 15 years, a group of scientists in Texas have been hard at work creating smaller and smaller devices to "see" through barriers using medium-frequency electromagnetic waves — and now, they seem closer than ever to cracking the code.

In an interview with Futurism, electrical engineering professor Kenneth O of the University of Texas explained that the tiny new imager chip he made with the help of his research team, which can detect the outlines of items through barriers like cardboard, was the result of repeat advances and breakthroughs in microprocessor technology over the better half of the last two decades.

"This is actually similar technology as what they're using at the airport for security inspection," O told us.

The chip is similar to the large screening devices that we've all had to walk through at airport gates for the past 15 years or so — though those operate at much lower frequents than this device, which uses electromagnetic frequencies between microwave and infrared, which are invisible to the eye and "considered safe for humans," per the university's press release 

As a nod to his colleagues in the electrical engineering field, O credited "the whole community" for its "phenomenal progress" in improving the underlying technology behind the imager chip — though of course, it was his team that "happen[ed] to be the first to put it all together."

As New Atlas recently explained, the chip is powered by complementary metal-oxide semiconductors (CMOS), an affordable technology used in computer processing and memory chips. While CMOS tech is often used in tandem with lenses to power smartphone cameras, in this case the researchers are using it to detect objects without actually seeing them.

"This technology is like Superman’s X-ray vision," enthused O in the university's press release about the imager. "Of course, we use signals at 200 gigahertz to 400 gigahertz instead of X-rays, which can be harmful."

Indeed, the Man of Steel came up multiple times in our discussion with the electrical engineer, who indicated that safety was priority number one when it came to developing this still-experimental technology.

For instance, as New Atlas noted, the chip's wave-reading capabilities have been deliberately curtailed so that it can only detect objects through barriers from a few centimeters away, assuaging concerns that a thief might try to use it to look through someone's bags or packages.

When we asked O whether the imager had been tested on anything living, or perhaps even human skin, he said that it had not — but that's mostly because the water content in human skin tissues would absorb the terahertz waves it uses. This comes as something of a relief, given that the idea of someone using their smartphone to look at your bones or organs without your knowledge is pretty terrifying.

And speaking of security, the engineer iterated that rather than seeking swift commercialization, keeping the imager chip's capabilities as hemmed in as possible to make sure it's not used for nefarious purposes is far more important — though he acknowledges it's impossible to entirely prevent inventive bad actors from figuring out their own versions.

"Trying to make technologies so that people do not use it in unintended ways, it's a very important aspect of developing technologies," O told Futurism. "At the end, you have to do your best. But if somebody really wants to do something... yeah, it's really hard to prevent."

While it's good news that this imager technology is, for now, limited to seeing through boxes and more insubstantial mediums like dust or smoke, the researcher said that it should be able to see through walls too — though, admittedly, he and his team haven't tried to yet.

More on wave-reading: The Earth May Be Swimming Through Dark Matter, Scientists Say