X-Ray Vision Smartphones? In-Cell Touchscreens? A T-1000 ‘Liquidmetal’ iPhone 5?

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Phones with cameras that let you see through walls, paper or clothing? An iPhone with a case made of “liquid metal”  and — wait, what’s an “in-cell” touchscreen?

I Can See-Phone You!

Let’s start with smartphones packing cameras capable of what we used to call “X-ray vision,” which researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas claim could be just around the corner. The whole “see through stuff” part is old news, of course: Cameras that detect infrared radiation can “see” through cotton-based clothing, for instance, and have been around for years. But imagine the technology bettered, miniaturized and manufactured cheaply enough to make it usable in everyday phones, where, as the L.A. Times notes, it could be put to work helping detect skin cancer and locating unseen cracks in objects or studs in walls.

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For starters, the UT Dallas researchers figured out how to tap a narrow, little-used region of the electromagnetic spectrum between infrared and microwave, known as “terahertz” radiation. Terahertz waves pass through just about everything save water and metal, including paper, wood, plastic and — because it’s the nervous question on everyone’s mind when talk of plausible, portable X-ray vision pops up — clothing, too.

“The combination of CMOS and terahertz means you could put this chip and receiver on the back of a cellphone, turning it into a device carried in your pocket that can see through objects,” said Dr. Kenneth O, Texas Instruments Distinguished Chair and TxACE director. Cool! (And kind of spooky…)

How do you pack a cutting-edge terahertz detection system into something as small as a smartphone and keep it inexpensive? By designing a complementary imaging processor using CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) technology. The result: A chip that can detect terahertz radiation, small enough to fit in a phone and cheap enough for mere mortals to afford.

Won’t this technology basically empower a newer, scarier generation of peeping Toms? “The major concern for this technology is privacy, so we’ve made it that you need to place the imaging device very close to the object you are looking at,” Dr. O told the Times. “We are talking about a distance of 10 centimeters, so it would be very difficult for someone to sneak up on you and…you know.”

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iPhone 5 Even Thinner than Rumored?

Rumormonger DigiTimes says Apple’s next iPhone will probably use what’s called “in-cell” touch panel technology when (okay, if) it rolls off the assembly lines this summer or early fall. What the heck does “in-cell” refer to? The position of the touch sensors in the panel itself. In “on-cell” setups, used in current smartphones, the touch sensors reside on top of the color filters — in “in-cell” configurations, they’re actually inside the color filters. That translates to even thinner touchscreens.

The DT rumor is supported by a Focus Taiwan report, which cites David Hsieh, the president of display market researcher DisplaySearch, as claiming Apple plans to trade Taiwan-based suppliers for Japanese panel makers (notably Sharp and Toshiba) when it starts manufacturing its next-generation iPhone. The reason: Japan currently has the edge on “in-cell” tech, explains Hsieh.

“Of course, Taiwanese panel makers are also developing this technology, but Japanese suppliers still run faster,” said Hsieh at a display-related conference in Taiwan.

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“This Thing Can Imitate Anything It Touches?”

The term “liquidmetal” probably conjures visuals like Robert Patrick’s T-1000 commandeering a helicopter, head-butting the windshield and pouring like a worm made of mercury into the cockpit. Obviously the next iPhone won’t do that, but as my colleague Doug Aamoth wrote in August 2010, liquid metal — an alloy that’s stronger than titanium — is already used in flash drives, MP3 players, jewelry, medical devices, industrial machinery, space projects and luxury phones like those made by Vertu. What’s more, Apple’s reportedly had an exclusive deal with the company responsible for the material since 2010.

That deal may be near fruition: Korea IT News claims Apple’s next iPhone will finally integrate the sci-fi-sounding material, giving the next-gen smartphone an uncommonly smooth, liquid-like shell while bolstering its durability. Whether Apple and its partners can make the whole thing work and keep costs low enough is another matter — speculation in 2010 was that liquidmetal might never make it into consumer products given its high manufacturing costs. But if anyone stands a chance of striking a reasonable deal given iPhone sales and economies of scale, it’s probably the folks at Cupertino.

But no, it won’t “imitate anything it touches,” ala the T-1000. Too bad. Don’t you just want to say “iPhone, form of a 9-iron!”

MORE: Apple Granted Exclusive Use of ‘Liquidmetal’ Casing Material