This new machine can read book pages without cracking the cover

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A new scanner, developed by engineers at MIT and Georgia Tech, can read text on page without cracking a book cover. Photo by MIT Media Lab

A new scanner, developed by engineers at MIT and Georgia Tech, can read text on page without cracking a book cover. Photo by MIT Media Lab

People can now read books without opening them, thanks to a new device created by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The machine uses beams of radiation to creep in between pages and scan individual letters. This new tool wasn’t made to create disdain among classic readers or for those too lazy to lift a cover. Rather it may unlock the secrets of old books or ancient texts too fragile to be disturbed by human touch.

“The Metropolitan Museum in New York showed a lot of interest in this, because they want to, for example, look into some antique books that they don’t even want to touch,” Barmak Heshmat, co-inventor and MIT Media Lab scientist, said in a statement.

This scanner exposes the contents of the concealed pages by relying on terahertz radiation. Terahertz waves mimic X-rays and soundwaves by being able to penetrate surfaces. Moveover, different chemicals — ink on paper for example — absorb terahertz radiation in different amounts. By beaming terahertz waves at a book, the MIT Media Lab device can skip through pages, but also tell the difference between blank and ink-filled parchment.

The gadget shoots these waves in short bursts, a portion of which bounce back whenever they encounter the small slivers of air between the pages. Meanwhile, computer scientists at Georgia Tech developed a sophisticated algorithm that deciphers these reflections when they return to the scanner.

Video by MIT Media Lab

“It’s actually kind of scary,” Heshmat said. “A lot of websites have these letter certifications [captchas] to make sure you’re not a robot, and this algorithm can get through a lot of them.”

So far, the prototype can read through the top nine pages of a book, but by boosting the power, future iterations may dig deeper. Heshmat and his colleagues published the details of the journal Nature Communications.

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