World’s fastest 2-D camera uses TI DLP® technology

The majority of us don’t give much thought to individual seconds in our daily lives. But Dr. Lihong Wang, the Gene K. Beare Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, lives and works one second at a time.

TI AvatarLihong and his colleagues have created the Compressed Ultra-fast Photography (CUP) camera, the world’s fastest 2-D camera – taking up to 100 billion frames per second. The typical point-and-shoot camera takes 2-15 frames per second.

The results of Lihong’s record-breaking camera could forever change how we study astronomy and physics — and how we use biomedical imaging.

What separates this camera from other ultra-fast cameras? If Lihong wanted to see the slow-motion of a laser pulse before the invention of the CUP camera, he had to photograph multiple laser pulses in succession, and stich the results together to create the final image. With the CUP camera, he can form the same image using only a single laser pulse. The end result is a mini-movie created by the frames the camera captures with the extremely high speed.

This innovation is significant because researchers can now capture non-repetitive moments in real-time with detail and resolution unlike anyone has seen before, such as a supernova exploding in space documented at 100 billion frames per second.

“I expect broad applications of CUP in advancing human understanding of the universe,” Lihong said. 

The applications go well beyond astronomy, he said. Scientists can study fundamental physical phenomena, like shining a light in a mirror, in completely new ways. Light reflects off a mirror at the speed of light. The ability to capture the slow motion of light transmission could be essential for seeing the physical behavior of light and exploiting it.

“Applications could include visualizing optical communications, optically active light–matter interactions and quantum-mechanical phenomena,” said Professor Brian W. Pogue at the Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering. “For example, it might be possible to improve the investigation into approaches to optical cloaking, in which light bends or is deformed around an object, instead of going through it. This field of study, popularized in Star Trek, is real, and although many advances are being made in fundamental approaches to cloaking designs, the inability to see the interactions between light and the object being cloaked hampers development.”

And living cells, which constantly move, can now be seen at extremely high speeds, allowing biomedical engineers to see a cell mutation without any sort of blurring – a common problem with the cameras used in biomedical imaging today.

“These ultrafast cameras have the potential to greatly enhance our understanding of very fast biological interactions and chemical processes and allow us to build better models of complex, dynamical systems,” said Richard Conroy, program director of optical imaging at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

TI AvatarThe world’s fastest 2-D camera exists today because of TI DLP® technology. The CUP used a TI DLP Lightcrafter™ evaluation module (EVM) that leverages a digital micromirror device (DMD) as the spatial encoding unit. In its simplest explanation, the high speed DMD is the key device to unlocking and retrieving time information of the images produced at 100 billion frames per second.

“I am impressed with the countless ways engineers innovate using TI’s DLP chips. We work to help students and professionals alike by making TI solutions broadly available and easier to use,” said Eric Droge, applications engineering manager for TI DLP Advanced Light Control Products.

Jinyang Liang, a research associate on Lihong’s team, said they chose DLP technology because of its reliability, flexibility and ease of use. In fact, he said the DLP Lightcrafter EVM was so easy to use, he almost didn’t need to ask for help.

“However, if I have questions, doubts or comments, I can always go to the TI E2E community where I ask a bunch of questions, and they always give me an accurate and quick response. TI really supports the device by providing these DLP tools and also providing the expertise from the E2E community,” Jinyang said. 

The CUP camera was featured as the cover story in the December 4th issue of the journal Nature, just 13 months after the Washington University team first started working on the record-breaking camera.

“The idea first appeared to be highly unconventional and even outright crazy. But it worked like a charm and produced amazing movies of the fastest possible phenomena in the universe!” Lihong said.

And we can’t wait to see what the world’s fastest 2-D camera will do next.

  • This is simply amazing and the videos (found on the Nature page) are awesome. I am excited to see the endless applications of where DLP technology can go.

    My dream would be to see a high speed video of the visible laser light pulses themselves being formed within a DPSS KTP frequency doubling crystal!