Seeing through the skin

September 11, 2008

Feeling blue? According to Prof. Leonid Yaroslavsky from Tel Aviv University, the saying may be more than just a metaphor.

Prof. Yaroslavsky believes that humans may have an ability to "see" colors and shapes with their skin. His optic-less imaging model is presented in a chapter of a new book, Advances in Information Optics and Photonics, and could lead to a new form of optical imaging technology that beats the limitations of today's lens-based imaging devices. His model may also explain how this controversial primordial instinct, which is observable in some plants and animals, might have evolved over millions of years.

"Some people have claimed that they possess the ability to see with their skin," says Prof. Yaroslavsky. Though biologists usually dismiss the possibility, there is probably a reasonable scientific explanation for "skin vision." Once understood, he believes, skin vision could lead to new therapies for helping the blind regain sight and even read.

Skin vision is not uncommon in nature. Plants orient themselves to light, and some animals -- such as pit vipers, who use infrared vision, and reptiles, who possess skin sensors -- can "see" without the use of eyes. Skin vision in humans is likely a natural atavistic ability involving light-sensitive cells in our skin connected to neuro-machinery in the body and in the brain, explains Prof. Yaroslavsky.

An engineer and scientist, Prof. Yaroslavsky is motivated by science and the design of new smart imaging devices, in which optics are replaced by computers. He is currently developing imaging simulation theories using computer software, theories which may lead to future devices with practical applications. Such devices, he says, would have distinct advantages over conventional optics-based imaging. Applications could include special sensors for detecting radiation at sea and in airports to detect terrorist threats, new night-vision devices, or near-weightless mechanisms to steer spaceships to stars beyond our own galaxy.

Traditional imaging lenses only work within a limited range of electromagnetic radiation. They are still very costly, limited by weight and field of view. Requiring no lenses, optics-less imaging devices could be adapted to any kind of radiation and any wavelength, says Prof. Yaroslavsky. They could essentially work with a "bionic" 360-degree field of view and their imaging capability determined by computer power rather than the laws of light diffraction.

Before real-world applications can be developed, however, Prof. Yaroslavsky hopes to convince biologists to take a leap of faith and delve deeper into the mechanisms of optics-less vision. Their input could propel imaging research to the next level, he believes.

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

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