Kinect is paving the way, but has a number of shortcomings, including the substantial size and weight of its hardware. However, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe they had found a way to build a 3D camera that is smaller in size and much more capable in its feature set.
"3-D acquisition has become a really hot topic," said Vivek Goyal, associate professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT’s Research Lab of Electronics. "In consumer electronics, people are very interested in 3D for immersive communication, but then they’re also interested in 3D for human-computer interaction." Goyal promises a camera that "provides more-accurate depth information than the Kinect, has a greater range and works under all lighting conditions — but is so small, cheap and power-efficient that it could be incorporated into a cell phone at very little extra cost."
MIT's camera uses what is referred to as "time of flight" of light particles to determine the depth of field: An infrared laser is emitted and a camera measures the time it takes the light to return from objects at different distances. However, instead of employing multiple sensors, the MIT system has only one detector - a one-pixel camera.
The scientists said that "clever mathematical tricks" allow them to calculate an entire scene by firing the laser a "limited number of times." There are no special requirements for expensive hardware as a "cheap" photo-detector and "ordinary" analog-to-digital converter as well as current smartphone processors are enough to enable the 3D camera feature.
There is no information when the camera system might make its way into commercial products, but MIT said that Qualcomm has chosen the project for its 2011 Innovation Fellowship program and provided a $100,000 grant.