Great Scott! Corneal Imaging is Actually a Real Thing!

Earlier today, we poked fun at a clip from the TV show CSI showing some pseudo-scientific photo enhancing. Many of the comments on YouTube also poked fun at the mention of “corneal imaging”, in which the investigators used to obtain imagery from the reflections seen in an eyeball. Turns out corneal imaging is a real thing…

We’ve probably all seen photos of reflections seen in eyes, but scientists are actually researching ways to magnify this reflection to unearth details within it.

A reader named Aseem left a comment in the post directing us to corneal imaging research being done over at Columbia University.

Here’s the description of what they’re doing, found on the research page titled “The World In An Eye“:

We have conducted an analysis of exactly what visual information about the world is embedded within a single image of an eye. It turns out that the cornea of an eye and a camera viewing the eye form a catadioptric (lens + mirror) imaging system, which we refer to as a corneal imaging system. Unlike a typical catadioptric imaging system, a corneal one is flexible in that the reflector (cornea) is not rigidly attached to the camera. Using a geometric model of the cornea based on anatomical studies, its 3D location and orientation can be estimated from a single image of the eye. Once this is done, a wide-angle view of the environment of the person can be obtained from the image.

So basically, scientists are now able to salvage and flatten images from eye reflections, even if the eye is looking to the side! This research was also done in the mid-2000s, so current technology is probably even more amazing.

Here are two videos by the researchers showing the technology in action:

What’s even more remarkable is the fact that researchers are using the technology to peer into the eyeballs of people in daguerreotype from centuries ago!

Here are some sample corneal images taken from daguerreotypes provided by collector Joe Bauman (along with sketches of what the researchers believe the images show):

Thus, the crazy eye reflection enhancements often seen in shows may one day be quite possible — given that security cameras of the future have amazing lenses and petapixel-resolution sensors!

Image credits: Photographs and videos by K. Nishino and S. K. Nayar/Columbia University

  • Tanja Schulte

    well have you never zoomed in on a eye… in a headshoot image, portrait?
    as if this is something totally new and unheard of. :)
    sure it is possible.

    the “problem” is that TV shows make people believe you can add as much REAL pixel information as you want to a crappy 480×240 pixel file.

    as if there are subpixels hidden in the pixels you only have to dig out.

    if a sign is only 2 pixels in an image you won´t be abel to extract the text on that sign.
    the information is not recorded.

  • MikeAlgar42

    The CSI one is ridiculous because someone did the Math on reddit (which is basically where the original CSI clip came from) and basically said to do what they were doing with images from the CCTV camera being recorded at 10fps then it would be writing 30gb a second to a harddrive and in a minute petabytes of data.

  • chipgillespie

    Of course, we’re all assuming the eyes will be in focus on every photo we ever want to “enhance”…

  • julie

    Of course it’s real, but the way it’s represented in CSI is impossible. The person is not even looking at the surveillance camera – she’s looking down – yet the investigators are able to get a full frontal image of her eye… come on…

  • Sam Agnew

    You realize that the reason this works with the old portraits is that they contain so much detail because of the large film size. I would like to see the results from a colour 8×10 large format film headshot taken with good lighting or a headshot taken with an MF digital back. I bet you could see quite a bit of the studio.

    Incidentally, it was a scene a bit like this in Blade Runner that planted the seed which eventually got me in to photography.


  • Dave

    The CSI clip is also ridiculous because the image started out as an eye shot from the side and in a couple clicks it was an image of an eye shot directly from the front.

  • Casey

    agent cooper did this a long time ago on twin peaks

  • Tanja Schulte

    that why we have photoshob CS7 with it´s great deblur feature… oh sorry you don´t.. but we at the NSA have it.

  • Angus McFangus

    Yeh, but it’s CSI, man! They get all the latest gadgets.

  • val escobar

    Isn’t CSi pretend TV?

  • Renato Murakami

    Maybe it’s just be, but the only part that I thought was funny, unreal and absurd is that they had images from a very crappy security cam and could take a perfect image from the reflection of a cornea of some blurred guy. This wasn’t possible by the time of the TV show and won’t ever be possible even with future research and technology… since you know, there’s not enough information on the image to extract in the first place.