Works in Progress - Winter 2014

From Superman to Everyman

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By Vicki Valosik


 

X-ray vision isn’t just for Superman (or the military) anymore. Thanks to Dina Katabi, a Syrian-American computer scientist and electrical engineer at MIT who is exploring new uses for wireless technology, any mortal with a cell phone may soon be able to see through walls.

Employing something she terms Wi-Vi (combining Wi-Fi and vision), Katabi and her research assistants devised a way to detect the numbers and relative locations of people in a closed room and recognize simple gestures made behind a wall. Using low-bandwidth, low-power technology that she says could become common, Wi-Vi works by emitting wireless signals and then measuring their reflections as they pass through walls and bounce off surrounding objects and people. Wi-Vi transmitters cancel out motionless reflections to distinguish humans, assumed to be in motion, from the much stronger but static reflections made by the walls surrounding them.

Katabi envisions such uses as confirming the presence of humans before firefighters or emergency responders are put in harm’s way, monitoring children and the elderly, detecting home intrusions, and controlling appliances remotely using gestures. As through-the-wall gesture recognition capabilities improve, she predicts that the Wi-Vi applications for interactive video games could become revolutionary.

Until recently, wireless networks have functioned like postmen carrying messages from one point to another, Katabi says, but we are beginning to realize their potential to do much more. Now, for her, x-ray vision is just the beginning.

Vicki Valosik is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Washingtonian, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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