Hyperspectral cameras are pretty nifty gadgets. They process information from across the electromagnetic spectrum – as opposed to just visible light – essentially allowing people to "see the invisible." Unfortunately they also tend to be big and expensive, although researchers are working on making them smaller and cheaper. To that end, scientists at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland recently succeeded in converting an iPhone camera into one.

While few technical details are available, the proprietary process did involve fitting a stock phone camera lens with a "cost-effective" filter that incorporates optical MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) technology. That filter is synchronized with the camera's image capture system.

Working in conjunction with purpose-specific apps, such an upgraded camera could have many possible applications.

"Consumer benefits could appear in health applications, such as mobile phones that are able to check whether moles are malignant or food is edible," says lead scientist Anna Rissanen. "They could also verify product authenticity or identify users based on biometric data. On the other hand, driverless cars could sense and identify environmental features based on the representation of the full optical spectrum at each point of an image."

VTT is now looking at commercializing the technology. Scientists at the University of Washington are likewise working on a smartphone-sized hyperspectral camera, while researchers at Tel Aviv University are developing one that could conceivably determine items' chemical composition just by imaging them.