Archaeologists hack Kinect to make handheld scanner

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego are hacking Xbox 360’s motion detecting Kinect device to serve as inexpensive portable 3D scanners for future archaeological digs. The Kinect sensor bar has a built-in color camera and a depth detector that uses a continuously projected infrared laser to capture 3D images. That’s how Kinect can tell even in dim light and with obstacles in the room how bad you are at bowling. It’s that perceptive capability the UCSD is customizing to archaeological ends.

As of now, research scientist Jürgen Schulze and his trusty graduate student Daniel Tenedorio have thus far successfully scanned people and small objects using their hacked Kinect.

Schulze’s ultimate goal, however, is to extend the technology to scan entire buildings and even neighborhoods. For the initial field application of their modified Kinect – dubbed ArKinect (a mashup of archaeology and Kinect) – Schulze plans to train engineering and archaeology students to use the device to collect data on a future expedition to Jordan led by Thomas Levy, associate director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology (CISA3).

“We are hoping that by using the Kinect we can create a mobile scanning system that is accurate enough to get fairly realistic 3D models of ancient excavation sites,” says Schulze, whose lab specializes in developing 3D visualization technology.

The scans collected at sites in Jordan or elsewhere can later be made into 3D models and projected in Calit2’s StarCAVE, a 360-degree, 16-panel immersive virtual reality environment that enables researchers to interact with virtual renderings of objects and environments. Three-dimensional models of artifacts provide more information than 2D photographs about the symmetry (and hence quality of craftsmanship, for example) of found artifacts, and 3D models of the dig sites can help archaeologists keep track of the exact locations where artifacts were located.

That’s assuming this handy gadget works once they get it out of the lab and into the dusty, rainy, bumpy and generally chaotic field. Right now it still requires an overhead video tracking system which means that the device is tied to the indoors. The researchers are working to replace the five-pronged infrared sensor that tracks the scanner with an independent system that enlists smartphone sensors to do the job. The same sensors that detect your location for your GPS data will detect ArKinect’s position and orientation in space.

The collaborative possibilities are mind-boggling. Archaeologists will be able to consult with experts on freshly discovered artifacts while still on the dig site. If they need more information or the scanner missed a spot, the field team can quickly scan to order so their remote colleagues can explore the virtual rendering. Same goes for teaching. Entire dig sites could be recreated for class, as long as said class has the option of taking place in a 360-degree, 16-panel immersive virtual reality environment.

That StarCAVE looks like something Angela should be using on Bones. You can see the 3D scans at work in this video: