Archeologists Use Hacked Kinect to Scan Dig Sites

Archeologists Use Hacked Kinect to Scan Dig Sites

Microsoft's technology actually makes for a cheaper 3D scanner


Call me old-fashioned, but I was never big on the idea of Kinect-style gaming. Even the Wii muddled the line between the physical and the virtual just a bit too much for me. I like my controllers to be big, weighted objects that I manipulate with my thumbs. Jumping up and down in front of a modified camera just doesn't cut it for me as a gamer. I want something I can grapple with.

But the Kinect technology itself is really pretty cool. Recognizing objects in real space and then transferring the data of their motion to virtual objects is a process that had been begging to hurry up and get invented years before it actually was. And some folks are using the mass-produced technology for ends other than pure gaming pleasure.

Students at the University of California, San Diego are headed out on a trip to Jordan during which they'll survey an archeological site with the tools of the future. Archeology used to be a very much on-site sort of job. You dug up some ruins, then you stuck around them for days while examining their every detail. It used to be quite a project, especially, I'd imagine, for students, who probably had other things to do besides look at pots all day. 3D scanning managed to change the way we look at dig sites. Archeologists no longer need to swelter on-site for days at a time. Once their site is dug up, they can scan the area and take the data home for digital analysis.

High-quality, official 3D scanners can run up quite a price tag, however. So what's a broke group of aspiring archeologists to do? Hack a Kinect, of course!

The Kinect actually uses methods of scanning space that are very similar to the real deal. It collects 3D positional data by shining very bright (yet invisible) infrared light onto objects, then observing the reflection of that light with an IR camera. Sort of like radar, only on a smaller scale. The problem with the Kinect as-is would be that it's meant to be a stationary device. In order to gather full data on an entire dig site, the wielder of the tool would have to move the thing around. Problems there arise when data points don't line up and the picture gathered starts looking like a bad CGI glitch. 

The hackers--who work over at California Institute for Telecommunications and IT--solved this problem by throwing in an overhead video tracking device to the mix. This sorts out the images so that the different locational points recorded by the device make sense over a period of scanning time. Now, students and archeologists alike have it within their power to mull over dig site data even on the flight home from Jordan. The Kinect hack also frees workers from the fear of damaging absurdly expensive equipment on-site due to its comparatively darn low price range. 

You know when you invent a product with the intent of entertaining millions of people and accidentally make it easier for professionals to take care of business? Work and play aren't always so distinct after all--even in this here era of modern gaming.