A 3D camera that sees in pitch black

If you think robots are scary, just wait until they can see in the dark.

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Of the many technologies that have helped drive the robotics sector in the last few years, there's a good case to be made that machine vision has had one of the greatest impacts. It's also almost certainly true that new imaging technologies, and in particular 3D cameras, are on the cusp of unlocking heretofore unseen capabilities in robots.

3D cameras aren't a monolithic technology, but rather describe sensors incorporating a variety of sensing strategies. That fact is made clear in a host of new 3D sensing offerings from a company called Orbbec, a leading global 3D camera provider that recently launched four new products that typify how the technology class will soon extend robotics capabilities to a wide range of environment requirements, such as temperature and lighting conditions from sunlight to total darkness.

"Innovations in 3D imaging, combined with broader advances like 5G, artificial intelligence and ultra-fast processors, are transforming the application landscape for designers and engineers," says David Chen, Co-Founder and Director of Engineering at Orbbec. 

One of these sensors utilizes time-of-flight technology, which utilizes an artificial light signal to resolve distance between the sensor and the subject for each point of the image, thus sensing in three dimensions with extreme accuracy. The cameras offer a high-resolution and can quickly capture the details of moving objects—even those with smooth and reflective surfaces, which are notoriously troublesome for robots. 

"Our new camera with time-of-flight technology is a great example," says Chen. "Its high resolution and tracking capabilities make it perfect for all kinds of products including fall detection, security, even at-home yoga and exercise products."

It's easy to see how these capabilities will be critical as automation escapes the structured environments of factories and warehouses and begins to enter the unstructured world. Orbbec's time-of-flight sensor isn't easily affected by ambient lighting conditions, another crucial characteristic for robots interacting with an unpredictable world. The camera has a depth-of-field range from 0.2 to 5 meters along with multi-camera synchronization support and the ability to be used in complete darkness.

Orbbec also recently unveiled an industrial-level 3D camera with ultra-high depth resolution and real-time 3D reconstruction. Developed in partnership with Purdue University, the camera will be available in 2021 as a white-label OEM product for laboratory and factory applications, among others.

"Our new products for 2021 showcase our ability to design for more scenarios, more platforms, and a broader range of environmental conditions," said Chen. "We've expanded our lighting options beyond traditional structured light, along with much higher depth resolution. These additions will be immensely helpful to designers and developers in a wide range of industries."

In addition to robotics, cameras like these support technology advances across a wide variety of sectors, including fitness. One of Orbbec's parters is FITTAR, maker of a smart mirror product. 

"By combining Orbbec's innovative technology with our smart fitness platform, we are able to bring a new experience to the end user. We are very motivated to keep working closely together with Orbbec, introducing more innovative products to the market," said Mark Voermans, Head of Product at FITTAR.

If a mirror that sees you with unfailing accuracy sounds scary, just wait until you have a robotic home companion with an AI sense of humor.