Scientists hack Kinect to deflect asteroids

Creating a tool for scientists in the field was probably the furthest thing from the minds of the engineers at Microsoft while they were building the Kinect, yet that's precisely what it's become. Researchers at UC Santa Cruz are using the device to develop techniques that could one day save the world, while others are using it to predict the flow of ice in Norway's glaciers, Wired reports.

Naor Movshovitz, a planetary science Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz, is hoping to use the Kinect to make observations that could one day be used to deflect an asteroid from earth. He intends to launch projectiles at asteroid-like pebbles inside one of NASA's gravity-reduced planes and study the results using a Kinect. Meanwhile, Ken Mankoff, a NASA-funded Ph.D. student is using the Kinect to get a better handle on the size and roughness of glacial crevices, using the data to predict how the ice will flow toward the sea.

Most researchers today are using LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, to make such observations. Using laser pules, they are able to accurately map massive areas over many miles. The only disadvantage is that such technology can cost as much as $200,000. And while it may be limited in scope (the Kinect can only see between 3 and 16 feet ahead), the Kinect more than makes up for that with its pricetag: $120.

That's more than enough for certain types of observations, The Kinect takes measurements of 9 million data points per second, compared to the Wiimote's single-point observations. If your LIDAR breaks down, you're in serious trouble, since they have to be ordered, calibrated, and repaired by specialists. The Kinect, on the other hand, is ready to go right out of the box, with open source drivers easily accesible online.

“You can go in any store and buy a Kinect for a small price,” Marco Tedesco, a hydrologist at the City College of New York, said. “You can even crash it and then buy another one.” Tadesco is hoping to mount the Kinect to a remote-controlled boat or hellicopter and map the meltwater lakes that form atop glaciers in the summer, something that's completely inconceivable with LIDAR. Such lakes can drain very quickly when cracks start to appear in the glacier.

“The more water you have, the more violent this process is.” By using the Kinect, Tedesco will be able to get better estimates of the lake's volume by measuring the shoreline when it's full and by scanning the bottom after it drains.

Unfortunately, it's not all rosy. Naor Movshovits, the planetary science student who wants to use the Kinect to make observations of projectiles impacting gravel, would like to be able to get very high-speed video of micro-g flying gravel, but that's beyond the scope of Kinect.

Tedesco could end up encountering problems if he tries to mount the Kinect to a boat, or even to a remote controlled helicopter - the Kinect doesn't take extreme temperatures and moisture very well. A lens could solve some of these problems, but that damages the accuracy of the device's measurements. Bob Hawley, a glaciologist from Dartmouth College, is sure that they'll find a way to get around such kinks. “We'll put the Kinect through its paces in the lab and make sure it's up to snuff.”

The one thing that ties all of these researchers together isn't so much the fact that they are using the Kinect, but how they are using it: in ways that it was never intended to be used. “I've always enjoyed repurposing cheap devices... You know, the hacker ideals,” Ken Mankoff said. And that's what makes the Kinect such a perfect platform for these researchers.

Despite being a consumer product, Microsoft's policy on modifying the Kinect is in stark contrast to that of Apple or Sony. As a piece of hardware, Kinect is open by design, as a Microsoft representative said last year. That customer's are finding new uses for the device is just what Microsoft wants because, just like the PC, Kinect's abilities are only limited by developer's imaginations. With Kinect, the sky is so not the limit.

Image courtesy of Ken Mankoff/Wired

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