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At the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development in Minneapolis, Microsoft’s Kinect is being put to a novel use: detecting autism. New Scientist reports that researchers have equipped a nursery with five Kinect cameras, which, together with computer vision algorithms that can detect unusual behavior, may be able to speed the diagnosis of autism.

How exactly does the system work? The Kinects can ID individual children based on their shape and clothing. Monitoring these children, the Kinects feed their data to a series of PCs with software that can track the kids’ activity levels, comparing them against an average. If a given child is either more or less active than average, he or she might have autism. Then again, he or she might just be tired, or hyper, which is why at that point an old-fashioned human doctor will have to weigh in on the matter.

“The idea is not that we are going to replace the diagnosis, but we are going to bring diagnosis to everybody,” one of the researchers, Guillermo Sapiro, told New Scientist. “The same way a good teacher flags a problem child, the system will do automatic flagging and say, ‘Hey, this kid needs to see an expert’.”

This is one of the extreme instances of what Microsoft has termed “the Kinect Effect,” the tendency of people outside of Redmond to come up with novel uses for a technology originally intended simply for gaming. (It was an effect documented well before Microsoft decided to condone and, smartly, co-opt it.) Sapiro and colleagues will present their system at the forthcoming IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in St. Paul.

Sapiro et al. hope to bring their novel use of the Kinect even further, perhaps automating some of what Sapiro calls the “very difficult and expert analysis that a psychiatrist would do.” Sapiro’s team has already developed computer-vision algorithms that can detect more subtle indicators of autism spectrum disorders, like a child’s ability to follow an object with his eyes. Perhaps some day, a Kinect-powered video game could both entertain a child while testing him for a disorder.

New Scientist doesn’t make clear whether Sapiro’s projects have official Microsoft approval, but Microsoft has endorsed at least one other project in which Kinect is used to treat children with autism, as evidenced by this video from last year.

BBDO and Autism Speaks also used Kinect for a bit of autism-related advocacy. In an effort to raise awareness about the challenges of parenting a child with autism, BBDO built an interactive Kinect-powered installation featuring a virtual girl who simply refused to look users in the eye.

I’m unsure whether the proliferation of autism-related Kinect hacks says something profound about the nature of motion-sensing its connection to autism spectrum disorders, or whether it’s simply an indication of the ways in which Kinect hacks increasingly touch on every aspect of modern life. After all, autism certainly isn’t the only medical condition people have tried to ameliorate, detect, or treat with Microsoft’s transformative technology.

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