Vision Invented

The trick is knowing exactly how materials alter light that enters them.

In experiments, the researchers shone a green laser beam at a roughly 80-micrometer-thick layer—that's 80 thousandths of a millimeter—of zinc oxide, a common ingredient in white paints. On the unseen side of the zinc layer were a series of tiny dots.

By analyzing the patterns of light that came through, the physicists generated a complex model called a transmission matrix—essentially a formula decoding the seemingly chaotic way light travels within the opaque material.

By applying the formula, the researchers say, they were able "translate" the green light coming through the zinc oxide, resulting in a digital camera image of dots in shades of green—revealing exactly what was behind the "wall."

(Read about the power of light.)

The team is now attempting to make out far more complex images of familiar objects, though they're awaiting publication before giving specific examples, ESPCI physicist Sylvain Gigan told National Geographic News.

The see-through vision isn't perfect, though, since a lot of light never makes it through to the other side of the opaque material. In more complex, future experiments, this missing "information" might result in grainy images, said Gigan, who co-authored the new study.


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