Intelligent Machines

Kinect Project Merges Real and Virtual Worlds

New software turns the Kinect into a cheap 3-D scanner—opening up applications ranging from crime fighting to interior design.

Microsoft’s Kinect Xbox controller, which lets gamers control on-screen action with their body movements, has been adapted in hundreds of interesting, useful, and occasionally bizarre ways since its release in November 2010. It’s been used for robotic vision and automated home lighting. It’s helped wheelchair users with their shopping. Yet these uses could look like child’s play compared to the new 3-D modeling capabilities Microsoft has developed for the Kinect.

KinectFusion, a research project that lets users generate high-quality 3-D models in real time using a standard $100 Kinect, was the star of the show at Microsoft Research’s 20th anniversary event held this week at its European headquarters in Cambridge, U.K. KinectFusion also includes a realistic physics engine that allows scanned objects to be manipulated in realistic ways.

The technology allows objects, people, and entire rooms to be scanned in 3-D at a fraction of the normal cost. Imagine true-to-life avatars and objects being imported into virtual environments. Or a crime scene that can be re-created within seconds. Visualizing a new sofa in your living room and other virtual interior design tricks could become remarkably simple.

“KinectFusion is a platform that allows us to rethink the ways that computers see the world,” says project leader Shahram Izadi. “We have outlined some ways it could be used, but I expect there are a whole host of future applications waiting to be discovered.”

3-D scanners already exist, but none of them approach KinectFusion in ease of use and speed, and even desktop versions cost around $3,000.

“In the same way that products like Microsoft Office democratized the creation of 2-D documents, with KinectFusion anyone can create 3-D content just by picking up a Kinect and scanning something in,” says team member Steve Hodges.

The first public unveiling of KinectFusion at the SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver in August triggered huge excitement. Details of how it works will be revealed in papers presented next month at the UIST Symposium in Santa Barbara, California, and ISMAR in Basel, Switzerland.

The Kinect projects a laser dot pattern into a scene and looks for distortions using an infrared camera, a technique called structured light depth sensing. This generates a “point cloud” of distances to the camera that the Kinect uses to perceive and identify objects and gestures in real time.

A KinectFusion user waves a Kinect around a scene or object. An algorithm called iterative closest point (ICP) is used to merge data from the snapshots being taken at 30 frames per second into an ever-more-detailed 3-D representation. ICP is also used to track the position and orientation of the camera by comparing new frame data with previous frames and the composite merged representation. The team describes the use of a standard computer graphics processing unit for both camera tracking and image generation as a major innovation.

While KinectFusion is generating a buzz, it is still an ongoing research project. Microsoft has not disclosed plans to release any products using the technology, or versions of the software that power the system. 

“It’s just stunning,” says Christian Holz, of the Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam, in Germany, who previously worked on a project that used Kinect at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington. “It’s going to make 3-D creation available to a much wider range of people. The fact that it can not only model the real-world environment in mind-blowing fidelity, but also use the model to simulate realistic physics on top of that, opens up the possibility of a vast number of applications.”

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insder? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.