Father of Microsoft's tabletop Surface moves to 3D ID tags

Father of Microsoft's tabletop Surface moves to 3D ID tags

Microsoft researchers are developing ways to hide embedded tags within 3D printed objects, as a way of identifying them.

Microsoft has announced that its researchers are working with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a way of making and hiding an ID tag inside a 3D-fabricated object.

Granted, the technique, dubbed InfraStructs, may be a little obtuse--after all, mankind has used price tags, decals, signs, RFID tags, QR codes, and other means of labeling objects for hundreds of years. But InfraStructs uses terahertz scanning techniques to "hide" information deep inside a 3D object, where it can be read, but not altered.

Microsoft is presenting the InfraStructs technology at the Siggraph show in Anaheim, Calif., a fusion of technology and art that involves graphics--and, more recently, 3D printing. Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon researchers are also presenting results of a technology called DrawAFriend, a "game" which essentially taught a computer how to draw, and what others users might be drawing.

One might say that 3D printing is in its childhood - a bit farther along than when the first printers came into being in the 1980s and 1990s, but still with a ways to go before reaching mainstream status. As such, the industry is still figuring out how to evolve beyond discussions of printed guns and meat, and into how printing could transform small-scale manufacturing operations.

Andy Wilson, a principal researcher at Microsoft who helped develop the original tabletop Surface device (now rebranded as Microsoft PixelSense to distinguish it from the Surface tablet) approached 3D printing as a way of identifying 3D information.

"A lot of people see 3-D printers simply as tools for rapid prototyping," Wilson said in a research article posted by Microsoft. "We want to think about 3-D printing more deeply and approach it as a research topic. InfraStructs brings terahertz scanning into 3-D manufacturing. It opens up new possibilities for encoding hidden information as part of the 3-D fabrication process."

Terahertz scanning uses the same technology as the latest airport scanners, which purport to be able to allow agents to "see" what passengers are (not) concealing about their persons when boarding a plane. In general, the equipment needed to generate such radiation is bulky and expesnive, leading to work like these miniscule terahertz sensors developed by CalTech.

The radition could reveal details hidden within an object, whether more information about the object, its price, or even a bit of software code.

"It has to do with the waveforms you get when the scan penetrates the object," Wilson explained. "We are able to distinguish between transitions in the material, void or non-void, by measuring the reflection distance. We investigated a lot of the really early depth-camera technologies, and at some level, it's all consistent with that line of research."

Wilson envisions a future where terahertz scanners are smaller, and ubiquitous. Unfortunately, research highlighted by MIT Technology Review last week, from researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, suggests that terahertz radiation could rip apart DNA. If more studies confirm those results, that could also mean that terahertz radiation could be on its way out.


Researchers also will share more results from DrawAFriend, an iOS game that helped teach the researchers' server about how to draw. The game plays out like a combination of Pictionary and Hangman, allowing users to guess the name of the subject of a drawing. In general, users tended to draw celebrities.

In the meantime, however, the researchers collected 1500 images a day. The game is still operational and the resulting database now includes more than 17,000 images, each with stroke-by-stroke information about how it was created, the researchers said. Now, the researchers say that once they know the subject of the drawing, the tool can now provide suggestions of how to draw, for example, Angelina Jolie.

"Our goal was to make it invisible to the user, so people wouldn't even be aware the correction is taking place," said Alex Limpaecher, a Ph.D. student in Carnegie Mellon's Computer Science Department, in a statement.

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