No sooner do we take off our Avatar-issue 3D glasses, than we hear about 3D video cameras from Fujifilm, Panasonic and Ikonoskop. These cameras use twin lenses to record a three-dimensional image, but a new imaging camera from Italy’s Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) gets the job done with just one lens and a laser.

The prototype camera is able to “see” the third dimension by illuminating each frame of video with laser light pulses that last no longer than a few billionths of a second. These pulses reflect off the subjects then return to the camera, where they are registered by a CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) micro-sensor, which then calculates the subjects’ distance from the camera. It’s not unlike sonar, except it uses light instead of sound.

Although it doesn’t produce movie-style images, the FBK team see several potential uses for the camera. It could be incorporated into devices for elderly or disabled people to help them identify dangerous situations, such as those that could result in falls. It could also be used for Wii-like physically-interactive gaming, where the camera’s 3D sensing would eliminate the need for players to hold a controller. The researchers also believe it could be used for navigation, perhaps even as an electronic guide within buildings such as museums.

The fact that the camera uses a standard CMOS, like those used in most electronic items, should help keep its production costs down. It was unveiled this week in The Netherlands at a conference addressing technology for the care of senior citizens.