As you read this, scientists at Microsoft Research are working on InfraStructs, a formula for creating secret tags embedded in 3D-printed objects which can be read by terahertz scanners, and could one day be part of your 3D-printed gaming accessories.
You might call what the Microsoft researchers are doing an attempt to make X-ray vision a reality. The InfraStructs project would essentially enable users to see into 3D-printed objects via the terahertz band, the wavelengths which fall between microwave and infrared on the electromagnetic spectrum. Engineers at the University of Texas Dallas have already created a chip which acts as a terahertz scanner to let smartphones see through "walls, wood, plastics, paper and other objects."
InfraStruct tags can enable new applications for "ubiquitous computing," by which they mean customized objects created with personal 3D printers could be identified and connected to the 'internet of things' immediately after fabrication. And that might lead to:
The see-through ability of THz can also extend tabletop computing scenarios where objects are stacked, buried, or inserted inside other objects, and would typically be occluded from conventional cameras.
Andy Wilson of Microsoft presented one vision of how such scanners could be used, "InfraStructs: Fabricating Information Inside; Physical Objects for Imaging in the Terahertz Region," at SIGGRAPH 2013. Wilson, who has taken part in a raft of Microsoft Research projects, says the technology has some interesting applications. He said potential uses for InfraStructs might also lie outside the manufacturing realm. Among them, Wilson mentioned customized game accessories with embedded tags for location sensing, tabletop computing which would allow objects sensed through other objects beneath them and even portable, mobile robots which can recognize objects in the surrounding area.
"Down the road, a program reads the object, and embedded within the object are further instructions, perhaps even code that can be read and compiled to further interrogate the object. There's been some work in this direction using RFID tags," Wilson said.
As with all technologies, terahertz scanning may also have some dark side applications as well.
Microsoft's own research notes that terahertz radiation can penetrate common textiles which would allow such applications to scan the human body. As skin tissue is reﬂective, the terahertz band "can potentially reveal human anatomy from beneath clothing. The ethics of using THz imaging for human interaction remains an issue to be addressed."
It seems this vision of the future from the back pages of comic books might be upon us sooner rather than later.
It also seems that such technology might be capable of causing massive disruption to your very DNA, so please use with caution.