Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a 3D imaging chip which could enable smartphones to take 3D scans of everyday objects. Being less than 1 millimeter in size, the square chip is tiny enough to be fitted inside a smartphone and the extremely high resolution 3D image thus taken can later be replicated with a 3D printer.

When this chip becomes commercially available, producing an exact copy of any object with a 3D printer could get easier, faster and inexpensive. This could also obviate the need to use large computers for duplicating scanned objects.


The device, being called the Nanophotonic Coherent Imager (NCI), developed by Caltech works by shining perfectly aligned beams of light on a targeted object. The subtle differences in the light reflected back from that object are then detected. The differences help it build a digital 3D image of the target.

The NCI uses an array of tiny LIDAR (light detection and ranging) laser beam scanners to shine the light. The aforementioned elements have been employed in applications like navigation for driverless cars and robots for measuring distances for a long time now.

The reflected light is then picked up by a small 4 x 4 grid of detectors which act like pixels in measuring the phase, frequency and intensity of the incoming light. They also assign a distance value to each pixel in the 3D image of the object that has been scanned.

Ali Hajimiri, the Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, and his colleagues at Caltech have already used the device to ‘scan and build a 3D image of the “hills and valleys” impressed on the face of a penny down to micron-level resolution from just half a meter away.’

Hajimiri is hopeful of scaling up the current array of 16 pixels up to hundreds of thousands of pixels and result in vast arrays of LIDARs soon.

Titled “Nanophotonic Coherent Imager,” the study authored by Hajimiri, Firooz Aflatouni, Behrooz Abiri and Angad Rekhi, was published in the journal Optics Express.

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