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Scientists Using Kinect to Study Glaciers and Asteroids

A NASA-funded Ph.D. student, Ken Mankoff, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying ice and ocean interactions using Microsoft’s motion-sensing device the Xbox 360 Kinect.

1) Subglacial cave underneath Rieperbreen Glacier, Svalbard, Norway, with Mankoff, waterproof bag, Netbook running Ubuntu, and Kinect. Jason Gulley.
2) A sample of the 3-D data from the Kinect’s scan of the glacier cave. Ken Mankoff.

“Last summer, Mankoff shimmied through zero-degree water and mud into a small cavern underneath Rieperbreen Glacier in Svalbard, Norway, holding a Kinect wrapped inside a waterproof bag. Using Kinect, Mankoff scanned the cave floor in 3-D. During the summer, water from lakes on the glacier’s surface had gushed through the channel he was sitting in. The Kinect was going to provide a better understanding of its size and roughness, which could help researchers predict how the ice above would flow toward the sea,” 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 said this data would be useful for future missions that may have to deflect medium to large asteroids that threaten to hit 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.

Most researchers currently employ a technology called “Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR),” which uses laser pulses to accurately map large areas over many miles. Though a Kinect can only see between 3 and 16 feet ahead, usually costs $120. Where as, LIDAR priced between $10,000 and $200,000.

At prior AGU conferences, scientists demonstrated the potential for Nintendo’s Wiimote as a scientific tool. While the single-point Wiimote measurements are useful, Mankoff said that the Kinect is on another level, with 9 million data points per second.

“You can go in any store and buy a Kinect for a small price,” said hydrologist Marco Tedesco of the City College of New York, whose research involves remote sensing on glaciers. “You can even crash it and then buy another one.”

Tedesco is interested in mounting a lightweight Kinect to a small remote-controlled helicopter or boat and mapping the meltwater lakes that form atop glaciers in the summer. Such lakes can be one to two miles wide and more than 30 feet deep, and are often suddenly drained when large cracks appear in the glacier, depleting the lake in as little as an hour. This water lifts the ice sheet and acts as a lubricant on the ground, accelerating the glacier toward the ocean.

The Kinect’s ability to measure the three-dimensional position of objects would allow Movshovitz to get data about the flight of each pebble after the projectile’s impact. At least three separate cameras and advanced image processing software would be needed to get the same information, while the Kinect has everything in a simple, ready-to-use package.

Despite its many potential uses, the device has shortcomings. Ideally, Movshovitz would like to get very high-speed video of his micro-g flying gravel, but the Kinect can’t do high-speed video.

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