MIT camera boasts trillion frame per second video

Camera can track photons, but can't capture kids' birthday parties

Stewart Mitchell
13 Dec 2011

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have built a camera that they claim can capture a trillion frames per second.

Dubbed by MIT as the ultimate in slow motion, the researchers say the image capture system is fast enough to produce a slow-motion video of a burst of light travelling through a one-litre bottle, bouncing off the cap and reflecting back to the bottle’s bottom. 

“There’s nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera,” said Andreas Velten, one of the system’s developers, although the camera has plenty of practical limitations.

According to MIT, the system relies on a “streak camera”, in which the aperture is a narrow slit. Particles of light enter the camera through the slit before passing through an electric field that deflects them perpendicular to the slit.

Because the electric field is changing rapidly it re-shapes the way light particles are deflected, which helps the camera build an image.

Time-space capture

The scientists warn that the images produced by the camera are two-dimensional, but only one of the dimensions is spatial – the other dimension is time, with the image representing “the time of arrival of photons passing through a one-dimensional slice of space”.

After gathering data for an hour, the scientists use hundreds of thousands of data sets stitched together to create sequential two-dimensional images.

However, the way the camera is built means the system is unlikely to be much use outside the laboratory, because it relies on seeing exactly the same event thoudands of times.

“It can’t record events that aren’t exactly repeatable,” the scientists said. “Any practical applications will probably involve cases where the way in which light scatters is itself a source of useful information - like ultrasound with light.”

The scientists have posted videos showing off their work on the MIT website.

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