MIT System Captures 3D Images from the Darkness

dark photography

Photo courtesy: Science/AAAS

Soldiers’ and spies’ ability to capture images in the dark may be getting a boost from the school of engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

An algorithm developed at the school’s Research Laboratory of Electronics enables a camera firing low-intensity pulses of visible laser light into a near-total dark environment to create 3D images of objects present, according to the journal Science.

The camera works much like the light detection and range scanners employed by surveyors to gauge distances – measurements calculated by the time it takes for reflected photons to get back to the scanner. The camera used by the MIT team fires a pulse at a given location until a single reflected photon is recorded by a detector, with each illuminated spot resulting in a pixel in the image being created.

In addition, the team led by electrical engineer Ahmed Kirmani, developed an algorithm that actually factors in correlations between the illuminated photon and the physics of low-light measurements, Science reported.

“We introduce a low-flux imaging technique, called first-photon imaging, which is a computational imager that exploits spatial correlations found in real-world scenes and the physics of low-flux measurements,” the team states in Science, which published the study Nov. 29 online. “Our technique recovers 3D structure and reflectivity from the first detected photon at each pixel.”

“We didn’t invent a new laser or a new detector,” Kirmani told the magazine, but developed and applied their imaging algorithm so that it could be used with standard, off-the-shelf photon detectors. Kirmani, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, previously invented compact, low-power 3D cameras that MIT officials said could “usher in new forms of human-machine interaction, automation and medical imaging.”

According to MITnews, the Kirmani team’s system for capturing 3D images in the dark produces results of a quality that a conventional imaging system would require 900 times the light to create.

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Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • anon

    hmm, by shining visible laser light into near dark situations allows them to see in the dark, hmmm. All that money for a tiny flashlight.

  • Hunter76

    Who is she?

    • blight_

      I meant “he”. Poor Ahmed Kirmani.

  • Smith28

    I vote for Sonar Goggles

  • rtsy

    I don’t mean to yawn but isn’t it about time we got hand-held LIDAR down? With CCD’s and compact lasers all the pieces have been here for decades.

    On a side note, I bet the entire NSA just orgasmed.

    • SJE

      We have hand-held LIDAR already. abilities and price are another matter.

  • ifDog

    …all you need to do is a hook up a 3D printer to the computer/camera that captured the 3D model, and you can make cool action figurines out of the bad guys sneaking around at night. ;-)

  • MassiveMarbles

    dark side of the moon

  • Joe_Sovereign

    You do know that while Europe plunged into the Dark Ages Islamic mathematicians preserved most of the work of Greek and Roman mathematicians and greatly expanded mankind’s knowledge of mathematics. Much of the base of all modern advanced mathematics is based on ideas from ancient “Muslim Mathematicians”.

  • Hunter76

    There’s nothing special about this– it’s just a new algorithm to build pictures from very few photons. The Chinese and everyone else will “steal” this technology. Total upshot– better low-light imaging for everyone.

  • Concerned

    No privacy concerns here?

  • saifee

    It can’t be used for surveillance or spying purpose because few photons emission from the camera can create problem for camera man.
    I hope you understood my point!