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What if you could read books without opening them

News Agencies | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

What if you could read an entire book without even touching it? What if words could float in front of your eyes, and you don't even have to turn the page! Well, seems like scientists have finally found a solution to this.

According to reports, scientists have developed a new technology that can read pages of a closed book, an advance that may help archaeologists look into antique books without touching them. Researchers, including including Indian-origin Ramesh Raskar from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, tested a prototype of the system on a stack of papers, each with one letter printed on it. The system was able to correctly identify the letters on the top nine sheets.

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"The Metropolitan Museum in New York showed a lot of interest in this, because they want to, for example, look into some antique books that they don't even want to touch," said Barmak Heshmat, a research scientist at MIT. He said that the system could be used to analyse any materials organised in thin layers, such as coatings on machine parts or pharmaceuticals.

The researchers from MIT and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in the US developed the algorithms that acquire images from individual sheets in stacks of paper, and interprets the often distorted or incomplete images as individual letters.

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"A lot of websites have these letter certifications (captchas) to make sure you're not a robot, and this algorithm can get through a lot of them," said Heshmat. The system uses terahertz radiation, the band of electromagnetic radiation between microwaves and infrared light, which has several advantages over other types of waves that can penetrate surfaces, such as X-rays or sound waves.

Terahertz frequency profiles can distinguish between ink and blank paper, in a way that X-rays can not, and has much better depth resolution than ultrasound. The system exploits the fact that between the pages of a book tiny air pockets are trapped about 20 micrometres deep. The difference in refractive index - the degree to which they bend light - between the air and the paper means that the boundary between the two will reflect terahertz radiation back to a detector.

In the new system, a standard terahertz camera emits ultrashort bursts of radiation, and the camera's built-in sensor detects their reflections. From the reflections' time of arrival, the algorithm can gauge the distance to the individual pages of the book. At the moment, the algorithm can correctly deduce the distance from the camera to the top 20 pages in a stack, but past a depth of nine pages, the energy of the reflected signal is so low that the differences between frequency signatures are swamped by noise.

Terahertz imaging is still a relatively young technology, however, and researchers are constantly working to improve both the accuracy of detectors and the power of the radiation sources, so deeper penetration should be possible, researchers said. The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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First published: 12 September 2016, 3:02 IST