For more than 15 years, a group of scientists in Texas has been diligently working on creating devices that can “see” through barriers using medium-frequency electromagnetic waves. Now, they seem closer than ever to achieving their goal.

In an interview with Futurism, Kenneth O, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Texas, explained that the new tiny imager chip developed by his research team can detect the outlines of items through barriers like cardboard. This breakthrough is the result of continuous advances and innovations in microprocessor technology over the past two decades.

“This is actually similar technology to what they’re using at the airport for security inspection,” O told Futurism.

The chip is akin to the large screening devices used at airport gates for the past 15 years, but it operates at much higher frequencies—between microwave and infrared—frequencies that are invisible to the eye and “considered safe for humans,” according to the university’s press release.

O credited the “phenomenal progress” in the electrical engineering community for improving the underlying technology behind the imager chip. However, it was his team that “happen[ed] to be the first to put it all together.”

As New Atlas recently explained, the chip is powered by complementary metal-oxide semiconductors (CMOS), an affordable technology used in computer processing and memory chips. While CMOS tech is often used with lenses to power smartphone cameras, in this case, the researchers are using it to detect objects without actually seeing them.

“This technology is like Superman’s X-ray vision,” O enthused in the university’s press release about the imager. “Of course, we use signals at 200 gigahertz to 400 gigahertz instead of X-rays, which can be harmful.”

Safety was a top priority for O and his team in developing this still-experimental technology. To address concerns, the chip’s wave-reading capabilities have been deliberately limited to detecting objects through barriers from only a few centimeters away. This precaution ensures it can’t be misused by thieves to look through bags or packages.

When asked whether the imager had been tested on anything living, or perhaps even human skin, O said it had not. This is because the water content in human skin tissues would absorb the terahertz waves it uses. This limitation is reassuring, as the idea of someone using their smartphone to look at bones or organs without consent is unsettling.

O emphasized that rather than rushing to commercialize the imager chip, the priority is to keep its capabilities restricted to prevent misuse. However, he acknowledges that it’s impossible to entirely prevent inventive bad actors from creating their own versions.

“Trying to make technologies so that people do not use it in unintended ways is a very important aspect of developing technologies,” O told Futurism. “At the end, you have to do your best. But if somebody really wants to do something… yeah, it’s really hard to prevent.”

For now, the imager technology is limited to seeing through boxes and insubstantial mediums like dust or smoke. While O and his team have not yet tested its ability to see through walls, they believe it should be possible.

By Impact Lab