Just when you thought they could do it all, smartphones could soon give mere mortals the power of X-ray vision.
Scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas have invented an "imager chip" that can transform mobile phones into devices that can see through walls and other objects.
"Well, you know, superheroes – who would not want to have superpowers?" said Kenneth O, a professor of electrical engineering at UT Dallas who spearheaded the research over eight years.
When asked if Superman was the inspiration for his invention, Mr. O laughed before admitting that he has a Superboy comic mounted on the wall of his lab. Old comic book advertisements for gadgets like X-ray glasses have also left him pondering the possibilities for years, he said.
Unlike the Man of Steel, however, the microchip devised by his team takes images using terahertz waves, which form part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Invisible to the human eye, the terahertz band falls between microwave and infrared wavelengths. (Terahertz waves have at least 10,000 times less energy than traditional X-rays.) Although imaging using terahertz waves has existed for years, it has traditionally required costly and bulky systems. Mr. O's team, though, has found a way to build an affordable device that is also small enough to be mounted on the back of a smartphone.
It is powerful enough to see through drywall, wood, plastics and cardboard if held within 10 centimetres of an object. Since privacy is a major concern, Mr. O argues the technology should be subject to strict controls because it can also see through clothing.
"The problem is that if this available to everybody, boy, this could be a nightmare," he said, adding his biggest concern is surreptitious use. "So, if you want to actually build devices like this you really have to limit the range."
Nonetheless, the device could have a number of useful applications for businesses, including the authentication of documents and currency or medical imaging to detect certain cancerous tumours located near the surface of the skin.
Consumers, meanwhile, could use the device when they shop to find hidden cracks in merchandise or during home renovations to locate wires and studs inside of walls. While he is still scouting for investors from the telecom industry, he estimates the device could be on the market in two to three years.
Still, the technology does have its limitations. Like Superman, it cannot see through objects made of lead. It also has trouble penetrating metal and cannot be used to detect internal injuries or growths that exist deep inside the human body.