Capturing Video at the Speed of Light

MIT Media Lab researchers have created a new imaging system that can acquire visual data at a rate of one trillion frames per second. That’s fast enough to produce a slow-motion video of light photons travelling through objects.

The camera is based on imaging technology called a streak camera, which is used commonly in chemistry. But this camera, which is very different from any digital camera you or I have seen, uses a laser and a range of precise engineering and optical techniques to snap thousands of images. Instead of a round lens, it has a slit, where light passes through and encounters an electric field that’s changing rapidly. Because the field is shifting fast, it deflects the light particles, or photons. A sensor inside the camera captures the photons one slit a time. Every slice of photons is then combined into one longer video.

Media Lab postdoc Andreas Velten, one of the system’s developers, calls it the “ultimate” in slow motion: “There’s nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera,” he says.

Video: Melanie Gonick.