NASA's New MARVEL: A Tiny 3-D Camera That Can Look Inside Your Head

A nurse looks at an MCAT scan of a brain, which is great for diagnosis but virtually useless when it comes to surgery. Monty Rakusen/cultura/Corbis

Surgery on someone's gray matter is a delicate operation to say the least. Since there is little space between the skull and the brain, it's tough for a surgeon to get in between to see what she's doing. NASA might have a solution: It is developing a microscopic camera that will allow surgeons to peek inside your head, providing a better view of the intricacies of the tissue, and hopefully lead to more effective, safer procedures.

The camera—code-named MARVEL, for Multi-Angle Rear-Viewing Endoscopic Tool—is being developed in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It measures just 0.2 inches in diameter and about 0.6 inches long. MARVEL will be attached to an endoscope, a device that examines the interior of the body, that has a bendable neck that can move left or right, with the ability to move in a 120-degree arc. To get MARVEL inside the patient's head, a small incision is made in the eyebrow, then a tiny hole is cut in the skull through which the endoscope is fed.

Besides being eminently manipulable, MARVEL comes with innovative 3-D photography tech. Traditionally, 3-D images are created the same way your eyes turn the world into three dimensions: Two lenses are placed side by side and take alternating pictures. MARVEL is able to generate 3-D images using two apertures that sit behind each other (this arrangement helps keep the camera tiny). At any given time, one aperture is open and receiving the image, while the other is closed; they alternate every millisecond. To create the 3-D image, the pictures from both apertures are merged. This is done in real time, at 60 frames per second.

"With one of the world's smallest 3-D cameras, MARVEL is designed for minimally invasive brain surgery," said Harish Manohara, principal investigator of the project at JPL, in a press release. When, for example, doctors need to excise a brain tumor or insert a deep brain stimulator to treat Parkinson's disease, they currently rely on craniotomy, a procedure in which a surgeon removes a large part of the patient's skull. Using MARVEL would allow surgeons to bypass the craniotomy—a highly expensive and dangerous procedure that requires a lengthy hospital stay.

Right now, NASA only has a laboratory prototype; the next step is to meet the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration. So, it might be a while before the mini camera makes its way to your brain surgeon's operating theater. Down the road, there's another place MARVEL may end up: deep space. Imagine it attached to NASA's next orbital robot, exploring brand-new worlds in stunning 3-D.