Technique could lead to cameras

Virtually any modern information-capture device — such as a camera, audio recorder, or telephone — has an analog-to-digital converter in it, a circuit that converts the fluctuating voltages of analog signals into strings of ones and zeroes.

Almost all commercial analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), however, have voltage limits. If an incoming signal exceeds that limit, the ADC either cuts it off or flatlines at the maximum voltage. This phenomenon is familiar as the pops and skips of a “clipped” audio signal or as “saturation” in digital images — when, for instance, a sky that looks blue to the naked eye shows up on-camera as a sheet of white.

Last week, at the International Conference on Sampling Theory and Applications, researchers from MIT and the Technical University of Munich presented a technique that they call unlimited sampling, which can accurately digitize signals whose voltage peaks are far beyond an ADC’s voltage limit.

The consequence could be cameras that capture all the gradations of color visible to the human eye, audio that doesn’t skip, and medical and environmental sensors that can handle both long periods of low activity and the sudden signal spikes that are often the events of interest.

The paper’s chief result, however, is theoretical: The researchers establish a lower bound on the rate at which an analog signal with wide voltage fluctuations should be measured, or “sampled,” in order to ensure that it can be accurately digitized. Their work thus extends one of the several seminal results from longtime MIT Professor Claude Shannon’s groundbreaking 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” the so-called Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem.