The next big thing

Future major developments in image processing will evolve from studying and applying developments in current technology.

Dec 1st, 2002

In its 30th anniversary issue this year, Electronic Engineering Times ( senior editors looked at eight future technologies that they claim would reshape the world. An important judgment criterion they used centered on a discontinuous order-of-magnitude improvement in performance over current technology. In addition, the selected technologies also had to enable the creation of system-level products that are not otherwise feasible even if current technology-development trends are extrapolated.

During the past 50 years, a number of such developments have emerged, such as the invention of the transistor, microprocessor, and integrated circuit (IC). However, as pointed out in the US National Center of Policy Analysis ( report Technology and Economic Growth in the Information Age, some inventions are more earthshaking than others. For example, although the parachute is a useful product, it has not produced the same market impact as the internal-combustion engine, telephone, or jet airplane. In other words, some inventions affect worldwide markets more forcefully.

In the machine-vision and image-processing market, inventions such as the IC have led to the introduction of fast analog-to-digital converters, charge-coupled devices, and oscillators, which have allowed fully integrated machine-vision systems to be developed at a cost of just a few thousand dollars. Along the way, however, there have been more than a few pitfalls. Technologies such as bubble memories never found favor as replacements for solid-state memory. In image processing, neural-network technology has yet to be embraced by more than a handful of companies. And the promise of the broadly defined "artificial intelligence" technology as a replacement for hand-coded programming has yet to emerge.

As the editors of EETimes point out, developments in electronics have mainly emerged from developments in solid-state physics. Industry technologists also concur that most of the major developments in image processing have been based on such research. Of the new technologies, microelectromechanical systems seem to be one of the most promising. By incorporating optics, communications, image, and information technologies into single devices, researchers are hoping to build more-functional, faster, and smarter machine-vision and image-processing systems.

Advances in image processing, however, will probably arise from a synergy between solid-state physics developments and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). By exploring different regions of the EMS, developers hope to introduce new applications for image-processing and machine-vision systems. Two of these technologies already under close scrutiny are terahertz-radiation (1 × 1012 Hz) and millimeter-wave imaging.

Terahertz, or far-infrared, radiation imaging consists of light with a frequency in the range of 0.1 to 30 THz, a largely unexplored spectral region of the EMS. At the University of Technology Delft (Delft, The Netherlands;, researchers have developed a 20-fs (1 × 10-15 s) Ti:sapphire oscillator for terahertz generation and detection. They also have demonstrated a machine-vision system based around this technology. TeraView Ltd. (Cambridge, UK; touts itself as the world's first company solely devoted to exploiting this technology. According to TeraView, its TPI scan system can rapidly image an object placed on its imaging window, and it has the potential to impact oncological imaging. Similarly, researchers at the US Department of Energy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Richland, WA; have already developed a wide-bandwidth millimeter-wave holographic imaging system for the Federal Aviation Administration to screen airline passengers for both metallic and nonmetallic weapons.

Despite such technology advances, I wonder whether the next major development in image processing will really evolve just from studying and applying developments in solid-state physics. In 1870, in his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope wrote, "The proper study of Mankind is Man." Perhaps by studying the biology, chemistry, and physics behind how human beings have evolved, man will build better image-processing, machine-vision, and robotics systems.

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