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.

    • blight_

      Not just that, but reconstruct spatial images.

      It’s not as practical today since we take FLIR and NVG’s for granted. However, NVG’s still require a phosphor, and when imaged by another NVG will give away the user.

      Single photons will probably not be resolved by another NVG user. It may be another strategy to “own the night”, especially against opponents who are more technically aware. If someone designs a system like gunslinger that can sweep a battlespace for the glare of a NVG phosphor, and then put a fifty-cal onto the target, it means someone is going to be out of the night-vision goggle business.

      • SJE

        Yes, but this technology allows you to use less light and integrate several different low-level sources to get a 3D picture. That is a lot harder to detect and counter.

        • blight_

          3D is icing on the cake for this particular application, though it might actually mitigate the depth perception issue that seems to crop up with the current generation of NVG?

        • Michelle

          …and read what is printed on their clothing.

  • 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. ;-)

    • blight_

      A physical record of the perp that breaks into a house at night

      Subject is probably 5′ 9″…

    • SJE

      Print them in green plastic, as the ultimate for playing soldiers. Oh no, billy is running over them with his trike.

  • 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”.

    • SJE

      Yep. “Al’gebra” is an Arabic word. Our numbering system is Arabic (and far easier than Roman). There was a big stink over the fact that the Arabs had the number zero, which the Christian zealots thought was a muslim plan to embrace the nothingness of Satan.

      What’s also funny is that it the Arabs and the Jews in Spain that had a very productive relationships for several centuries. The inquisitition removed all of that. Spain relied on its military and soldiers of fortune, and did very well on the gold and slave trade, but fell behind everywhere else.

    • DrTorch

      And what “Dark Ages” was that, Joe?

      Another repeat of a long dismissed myth.

    • ben

      fun fact… “Arabic” numerals are actually Sanskrit, and the concept of zero was introduced in India…
      similarly, stuff like damascus steel was sourced from Indian ore.

      The golden age of islam had everything to do with their immensely profitable monopoly on the trade routes between europe, africa, & asia. Controlling north africa gave them a cut of everything to the south, controlling persia gave them a cut of everything from the east, and the old silk road routes north of the black sea were cut by the mongols on and off for centuries.

      • blight_

        Correct. To the European, the Arabs had the ideas first because so few made it past the Arab territories to India. This presumably led to fanciful imaginations of what The East was like-Prester John and all.

  • 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!