If you’ve never had the pleasure of an MRI scan, as a veteran of several sessions, let me tell you what it’s like. They put you on a platform that slides you into the heart of a giant metal donut, where you have to lie perfectly still. During the scan, it sounds as if you’re inside a 55 gallon metal drum, while people with sledgehammers bang incessantly on its sides. Needless to say, it’s not an experience that is likely to be adapted as an amusement park ride any time soon.

A new company is trying to change all this. Openwater is working to create a new imaging technology that uses light instead of magnetic fields to track the blood flow and other functions going on deep within our bodies. Their initial project is to create a scanning system that can be contained in a typical knit cap. This means that instead of being confined within the scanner, a patient is free to move around. This development could revolutionize efforts to map brain activity, as is done now with “functional MRI (fMRI), because researchers will be able to observe changes in the brain while the subject is actively performing a task.

The leading force behind this project is Mary Lou Jepsen who has been involved in a number of innovative projects in the past, including “One Laptop Per Child.” As mentioned, the Openwater technology relies on light. Infrared light is projected into the brain (or other part of the body) using liquid crystal displays (LCDs) with pixels small enough to “neutralize the scattering” of the light, according to the company. This will allow the creation of reconstructive holographic 3D images at video rates. This could lead to better understanding of brain function, as well as lead to new ways to diagnose and treat disease in the brain or other parts of the body. It may even make it possible to detect brain activity for use as a way for paralyzed patients to control devices or communicate with other people. The first prototype units will be distributed to partners next year.