A team at University of Texas at Dallas tuned a small, inexpensive microchip to discern a "terahertz" band of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The design works with chips made using Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor technology behind processors commonly found in personal computers, smartphones, televisions and videogame consoles.
"CMOS is affordable and can be used to make lots of chips," electrical engineering professor Kenneth O said in a statement on Friday.
"The combination of CMOS and terahertz means you could put this chip and a transmitter on the back of a cell phone, turning it into a device carried in your pocket that can see through objects."
To assuage privacy worries, the professor and his team at the Texas Analogue Center of Excellence are limiting their study to what the chips can make visible at distances of four inches (10 centimetres) or less, according to the university.
The terahertz band has wavelengths that fall between microwaves used for mobile phone signals and infrared that is employed for night vision goggles.
The chip designed by Mr O's team detects terahertz waves and shows the resulting imagery, perhaps on a smartphone screen.
Mr O's team highlighted potential medical uses such as enabling doctors to peer easily into patients' bodies and practical applications along the lines of finding studs in walls.
"We've created approaches that open a previously untapped portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for consumer use," Mr O said.
"There are all kinds of things you could be able to do that we just haven't yet thought about."