Microsoft Research: Secret tags in 3D-printed objects, hooked to the Internet of Things

Microsoft Research is working on InfraStructs, secret tags embedded in 3D-printed objects, which are read by terahertz scanners, and could one day be part of your 3D-printed gaming accessories hooked to Internet of Things.

While people ponder why Microsoft's Nokia bid is either great or terrible for the company's future, Mashable pointed to five Nokia patents that Microsoft should pursue to "get creative with future Nokia phones and bring some real innovation back to the mobile marketplace." The shape-shifting phone and kinetic energy harvester to let motion keep the battery charged are cool, but Microsoft has had plenty of cool tech ideas that it simply didn't bring to fruition.

Remember the Microsoft Surface multimedia coffee table? Instead of those, consumers can either DIY to build such a table, or settle for Microsoft Surface tablets.

Many gamers were excited about IllumiRoom, and Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson showed off a hands-on IllumiRoom demo at SIGGRAPH 2013 in July. However, that cool tech is not happening either, according to Albert Penello, head of product planning for Xbox One.

"I wouldn't expect you'll see that," Penello told AusGamers. "It's very, very cool tech but it's, like, for a consumer, it requires projectors and things. It's really super-neat if you're in the lab and you've got Microsoft money and you could totally set up this awesome lab, but... we looked at it, but for an average customer it's, like, thousands of dollars [for the set up]."

Parental controls are neither new, nor especially innovative, but GeekWire pointed out a Microsoft 'quieting mobile devices' patent. It would provide a parent dashboard on phones that would allow parents "to set restrictions, grant accesses, and allocate information to the other family members in a family group." Slashdot took it a step farther by adding, "Microsoft also proposes equipping parents' phones with 'biometric detection' to thwart kids who try to circumvent 'Big Mother'."

Microsoft needs to stretch its imagination if that is indicative of what it believes to be innovation. Some Microsoft researchers are doing exactly that, by trying to make Superman's x-ray vision a reality to see into 3D-printed objects that could be tied to the Internet of Things. To accomplish this, they are tapping into the terahertz band, the wavelengths between microwave and infrared on the electromagnetic spectrum.

You might note, however, that engineers at UT Dallas have already designed a "superpower" chip that acts as a terahertz scanner, allowing smartphones to see through "walls, wood, plastics, paper and other objects."

A Microsoft Research paper, "InfraStructs: Fabricating Information Inside; Physical Objects for Imaging in the Terahertz Region" [pdf], was also presented at SIGGRAPH 2013 by Andy Wilson. He has worked on numerous Microsoft Research projects, such as the surface-computing project prototype that later morphed into Microsoft PixelSense - something you might be interested in if you wanted to DIY a multimedia coffee table.

"The InfraStructs project pioneers techniques for reading unique identifiers embedded within 3-D printed objects." Although that might sound a bit like Yawnsville, future applications have the potential to be very cool. IEEE Spectrum dubbed it "DIY spycraft with 3-D printing."

Microsoft Research reported:

Wilson sees potential uses for InfraStructs beyond manufacturing. He sees the concept applied in future applications such as customized game accessories with embedded tags for location sensing; tabletop computing with tangible objects sensed through other objects beneath them; and, when the technology becomes more portable, mobile robots with THz range finders that can recognize objects in the surrounding area.

Wilson added, "Down the road, a program reads the object, and embedded within the object are further instructions, perhaps even code that can be read and compiled to further interrogate the object. There's been some work in this direction using RFID tags. We talk about 'the Internet of Things,' and I would argue this fits into that vision."

The image above was captioned with this explanation: "Potential future applications for InfraStruct tags: (a) Mobile robots with THz range finders that also recognize objects in the environment, (b) customized game accessories with embedded tags for location sensing and the ability to image occluded parts of the user, (c) tabletop computing with tangible objects sensed through other objects beneath them."

Like all technology, terahertz scanning could be used for good or for evil. Regarding safety and privacy, the research paper states [pdf], "As THz radiation can penetrate many common textiles, privacy is a consideration for applications that scan the human body. Skin tissue is reflective and can potentially reveal human anatomy from beneath clothing. The ethics of using THz imaging for human interaction remains an issue to be addressed."

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