Duke University researchers can see through walls. No, seriously.

Without knowing what the walls were made of, researchers at the North Carolina university were able to see through them with the help of a narrow band of frequencies and a special algorithm, according to a press release.

Most technologies in use today need to know the wall materials in order to predict how the materials themselves will affect the frequency waves used to scan the wall. Duke’s new approach, however, needs no previous knowledge of the wall’s build to perform a scan.

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“Most technologies that can see through walls use a broad range of frequencies, which makes them expensive,” Daniel Marks, associate research professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, said in the release. “They also don’t have very good resolution. So while they might be fine for seeing a person moving on the other side of a wall, they’re terrible for finding thin conduits or wires.”

Instead of focusing on what the wall was made out of, researchers Marks, David Smith, and Okan Yurduseven focused on how symmetrical it was. Being typically flat and uniform, they affect the frequency symmetrically, the release said.

“We wrote an algorithm that separates the data into parts–one that shows circular symmetry and another that doesn’t,” Yurduseven said in the release. “The data that doesn’t have any symmetry is what we’re trying to see.”

Using a single frequency for scanning could help make the service cheaper, and could make it easier to win approval from the FCC, the release noted.

While the new technique could clearly enhance security operations, the release noted, it could also help in areas like construction. Using the technique, workers could more easily find conduits, pipes, wires, and more, saving time and improving safety.

After building a few test walls in their lab, the researchers were able to locate items like studs, electrical conduits, wires, and junction boxes, giving more weight to the idea that this could be used in the construction industry. While the initial scans seem muddy, they become much more clear after the imperfections are removed.

“We envision combining this technique with a machine vision system that someone could move over a wall to see what’s inside,” Marks said in the release. “We think the technology has the price point and sensitivity to make an impact on the market.”

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Researchers at Duke University used a narrow band of microwave frequencies and a specialized algorithm to see through walls.
  2. Researchers were able to see through walls without knowing what they were made of, offering a broader approach that could be cheaper.
  3. The technology could improve security and make it easier for construction workers to find studs, junction boxes, and more.