MIT Kinects with the Future

Philip K. Dicking Around
By S.I. ROSENBAUM  |  December 15, 2010


Here in the future, we don't just have park lights that run on dog poop; we're so advanced that cutting-edge technology occasionally shows up in the toy aisle at Wal-Mart.

Case in point: Microsoft's Kinect, ostensibly a "controller-free" peripheral that lets you direct games on an Xbox 360 with hand motions (á la the Wiimote). Essentially, it's an affordable (around $150) 3D motion-tracking camera — and over at MIT, it's being used for all kinds of off-brand activities that call to mind dystopian science-fiction plots.

Back in November, Philipp Robbel, a grad student with the Personal Robots Group at MIT's Media Lab, paired the Kinect and that other consumer-tech poster child, the Roomba. The resulting monster — Robbel calls it a KinectBot — is a round little robot with a huge scanner sitting on top of it. Send it into a room, and it scans its environment and constructs a virtual, three-dimensional model of everything it sees. The Kinect's gesture-recognition ability means that you can tell it where to go just by pointing. Robbel tells that he sees a use for the KinectBot as a rescue robot. We know it will eventually give rise to a race of Cylons who will destroy us all. Still, for now it's pretty cool.

Of course, killer robots weren't our first thought when we saw the Kinect. Our first thought was the same as everyone else's: OMG, it's like Minority Report! The best part of that movie was watching Tom "Crazy Eyes" Cruise flicking data around in the air. Well, the MIT kids took that idea and ran with it: another Media Lab group devised a way to use JavaScript and the Kinect to let you browse the Web with the wave of a hand.

Meanwhile, over at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, robotics student Garratt Gallagher went one better, figuring out how to get the Kinect to recognize finer gestures using all 10 fingers. You can see him on YouTube, conducting a series of photos on a screen with all the panache of Mr. Scientology himself.

Watching him, you get the freaky feeling that we're just a few months away from what Arthur C. Clarke would call sufficiently advanced technology — i.e., indistinguishable from magic.

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  Topics: Videogames , Philip K. Dick, Tom Cruise, YouTube,  More more >
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