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Imagine you need to have an almost exact copy of an object. Now imagine that you can just pull your smartphone out of your pocket, take a snapshot with its integrated 3-D imager, send it to your 3-D printer, and within minutes you have reproduced a replica accurate to within microns of the original object. This feat may soon be possible because of a new, tiny high-resolution 3-D imager developed at Caltech.

Any time you want to make an exact copy of an object with a 3-D printer, the first step is to produce a high-resolution scan of the object with a 3-D camera that measures its height, width, and depth. Such 3-D imaging has been around for decades, but the most sensitive systems generally are too large and expensive to be used in consumer applications.

A cheap, compact yet highly accurate new device known as a nanophotonic coherent imager (NCI) promises to change that. Using an inexpensive silicon chip less than a millimeter square in size, the NCI provides the highest depth-measurement accuracy of any such nanophotonic 3-D imaging device.

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