MIT Researchers Capture the Speed of Light on Camera

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Our feeble little minds can’t process the time that light takes to fill a room, but now we can see it happen in slow-motion with help from the MIT Media Lab and its trillion frames per second camera.

The camera’s shutter speed is fast enough to record light as it travels across a room. If your mind’s not already blown, consider this: You’d need an entire lifetime to watch one tenth of a second of footage on this camera, slowed down to 30 frames per second so you could see the action.

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Of course, MIT’s light-capturing camera is no point and shoot. In fact, it can’t even capture more than a slice of one-dimensional space at a time. The video above is actually a composite of hundreds of thousands of videos, each shot at a slightly different angle with a mirror and a “streak camera,” originally used by chemists to capture light passing through chemical samples. The data collection process takes about an hour—pretty slow for an extremely fast camera.

Cool as it is to watch the travel of light in slow motion on YouTube, the researchers do  have practical applications in mind. Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at MIT’s Media Lab, thinks the camera could be used for ultrasound, analyzing how light scatters inside the body. He also thinks consumer technology could benefit, emulating fancy lighting effects by observing how photons fill a room. But given the time and expense that went into MIT’s experiment, I wouldn’t count on practical applications to appear anytime soon. For now, it’s just impressive on its own.

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