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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Kinect Hack Lends a Hand to Shoppers in Wheelchairs

Shopping for groceries in a wheelchair can be tough. A Kinect hack, of all things, might make it easier.

  • June 14, 2011

The Kinect hack has become an entire subgenre of technology innovation, ever since the Microsoft device debuted for Xbox 360 back in November. We’ve seen all sorts of wild experiments with the Kinect: an invisibility cloak, a flying robot, and yes, inevitably, that Minority Report interface. What was intended as a mere toy has become a canvas for DIY creativity.

One thing we’ve seen relatively little of, though, is socially-conscious Kinect hacking. Just as we were beginning to get cynical, however, along comes a fellow named Luis Carlos Inácio de Matos to warm our hearts with a Kinect hack for people in wheelchairs, called Wi-Go.

In order to understand the importance of Wi-Go, first you need to imagine what it’s like grocery shopping from a wheelchair. In a word, it’s difficult. The disabled person already has his hands full wheeling around the supermarket—how is he to simultaneously push or pull a shopping cart down the aisles?

Luis Carlos Inácio de Matos, who is affiliated with the Department of Informatics at the University of Beira Interior, of Portugal, souped up a cart with a Kinect system. The Microsoft-augmented shopping cart then had the ability to follow around the young man as he wheeled around a supermarket. The Kinect cart tracked him and replicated every move, even threading the needle of a pair of anti-theft scanning towers at the entrance to the market. You can see a video of the hack in action here.

It’s an idea that’s been tried out before. In 2006, a University of Florida student created a similar system that he called B.O.S.S. (for “Battery Operated Smart Servant”). Luis Carlos Inácio de Matos’s invention appears to work more smoothly—though as a prototype, it naturally remains a little rough around the edges. The Wi-Go is good at following, to be sure. But an even smarter and more dynamic system would know not only when to follow (when its user is in transit), but when to ride abreast (when its user is selecting items off the shelves).

Still, even baby steps are welcome in the nascent realm of Kinect hacks with a conscience. We applaud the Wi-Go’s induction into a small hall of fame, where it rests right in between this Kinect hack that interprets sign language, and this one that lends help to the blind.

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