Want to see through walls? Now you can with MIT's X-ray vision technology

Marvel’s universe may have once been confined to its comic books, but thanks to some pretty crazy innovations, we just might be closer to bringing superheroes, or at least their powers, into real life. Thanks to scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we now have software that detects radio signal variations in order to discern human silhouettes … through walls. But it gets better: Professor Dina Katabi says her technology can even track human movement (again, through a wall), and may be able to assist health care providers and family members keep a close eye on children and the elderly alike, even if they’re not in the same room. That’s right, friends: X-ray vision is now a thing.

Other applications for the software include law enforcement and the military, but really, there’s no end to potential use cases for X-ray vision. I mean, isn’t this literally what legends are made of?

Research regarding the technology began in 2012, when researchers first began to probe the use of wireless signal for “vision.” “At first we were just interested,” Katabi said. “‘Can you at all use wireless signals to detect what’s happening in occluded spaces, behind a wall, couch?’ something like that.” And as it turned out, the answer was a resounding yes, which led to more questions from Katabi — most notably, “Could we use it to detect exactly how people are moving in a space if they are behind a wall?”

While the technology is a bit more complex than the layman’s explanation, Fadel Adib, an MIT researcher involved in the device’s development, explained it simply: “Think of it just like cameras, except that it’s not a camera,” he said. “It’s a sensor that can monitor people and allow you to control devices just by pointing at them.”

Although the software isn’t quite robust enough to make out distinct shapes quite yet, and instead simply depicts an individual as a red dot on a screen (though movements are tracked in real time), it is able to pick up on some pretty minute details, including breathing and heart rate, as well as his or her skeletal shape. And because the person being watched won’t be wearing anything, the technology is particularly good for stealth mode, says researcher Zach Kabelac.

This makes it especially useful for law enforcement officials, Katabi notes. “You don’t want to send the police inside without knowing where the people are standing or where the hostages are,” she said. “If there is someone with a gun, where they are standing?”

Of course, this sort of monitoring does beg quite a few questions about privacy and surveillance laws, and as such, the team has been careful in ensuring that users can’t abuse the device once it goes to market in early 2017. “The user interface will be friendly for setting it up and using it at home, but it will be very hard to use it to track someone just by pointing it at their wall,” said Adib.

X-ray vision is expected to set you back around $250 to $300, and will hopefully be much smaller and smartphone compatible by the time it’s made available to the general public. So if you grew up wanting to be a superhero, here’s your chance.

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