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Since its release in November 2010, the Kinect for Xbox 360 -- now the fastest-selling consumer electronics device of all time -- has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of videogame enthusiasts as well as many university researchers, who have modified the device for use in projects ranging from robotic telesurgery to navigation systems for the blind to now creating three-dimensional renderings of glacial caves in order to predict how ice flows to the sea.
Wired recently reported how researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, City College of New York, and Dartmouth College are using Kinect to better understand everything from glaciers to asteroids. The story highlights how scientists are repurposing the capabilities of the gaming device, which can process ~9 million data points per second and can see three to sixteen feet in distance to create illustrations of three-dimensional spaces and movement. Researchers typically use a technology called Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) for these types of experiments, which make renderings at a distance of miles rather than feet. But at $120 for Kinect compared to $10,000 and $200,000 for a LIDAR device, scientists can take a device made for playing games at home to map tight spaces like a glacial cave or the trajectory of asteroid-like gravel in a zero-gravity environment.
I continue to be amazed at the different ways people are using technology to better understand the planet and its natural resources. With the holiday’s right around the corner, the Kinect may just be the perfect gift for your favorite glaciologist or astronomer.
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