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Kinected: Naval Academy Project Hacks XBox Sensor for Military Applications

Posted on: March 14, 2013 08:00 EDT by MC1 Chad Runge

The gaming industry has changed a great deal since a pair of plumbers first set out to save their lovely princess from the menacing grasp of an angry over-grown turtle. What started with a 2-bit gaming console designed for virtual table tennis has reached incredible heights, now connecting hundreds of gamers via the internet on virtual battlefields.

One recent breakthrough in the gaming world was the release of camera-based add-on hardware from industry superpowers Microsoft and Sony. Used in conjunction with the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles, the Kinect and Move 3-D camera systems view specific movements made by gamers and incorporate those movements into the games they’re playing, resulting in complete hands-free control.

It was with the Kinect system in mind that Midshipmen 1st Class James VanKirk and Eric Mosher came to agreement on their capstone project.

“The goal is to take the Xbox Kinect and use it for computer-vision applications,” said VanKirk. “We want to design it to do robotic object detection so you can detect certain objects in a scene. Beyond that, because the Kinect has 3-D capabilities, we want it to determine what position that object is in.”

These mids chose to repurpose the Kinect in hopes of creating an inexpensive alternative to expensive object detection systems.

“You can put this system on a robot and just like that, you have a really inexpensive, fully-functional and mobile computer vision system, instead of having to spend a lot on fancy laser cameras,” said Vankirk.

VanKirk believes that a system like this could have significant value to today’s military. Explosive ordinance disposal, security and ground combat units could considerably mitigate risk to their personnel by employing such a device.

 “If we’re able to get to the final stages of our development this semester,” VanKirk said, “ we would be able to integrate this system onto some platform (robot), drive it into a room, give the system a goal, such as ‘find the bomb,’ and the robot would scan the room with its camera and find a match. Using the position data from the camera, it could determine where that bomb was located, how it was positioned, and return to you with that data.”

Their Kinect modifications could result in a significant savings to users desiring to utilize computer vision systems for their own research and practical purposes. 

“The whole premise is not only to create the vision system, but to use very inexpensive components,” he said. “The Xbox Kinect costs about $100 off the shelf, and all of the background programs that we’re using and developing are all considered open-source software, which means that anyone can find and edit it.

“While it could certainly benefit military technology, I think the greatest benefit would be to the research world,” he said. “You wouldn’t have to spend all of your money trying to build a system. You’ll be able to spend it on tweaking that system and using it for your own research purposes. This opens a new door for researchers who don’t have as much financial support as many other large corporations.”

It’s a lofty goal for two midshipmen who will soon be headed to the Navy’s submarine community. But while many young adults are glued to their television screens using these devices for recreation, Mosher and VanKirk have big plans for them that don’t include your standard forms of recreation.

“We started working on it last semester with our independent research class and continued it this semester in our design class. We’re probably not going to see a perfect system by the end of the year, but we’ve got a work-in-progress that will hopefully allow people to refine it and take it further.”

The U.S. Naval Academy’s System Engineering program is one of 24 majors at the school, primarily focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in order to meet the current and future highly technical needs of the Navy. Graduates who are proficient in scientific inquiry, logical reasoning and problem solving will make up an officer corps ready to lead in each warfare community of the Navy and Marine Corps. Capstone is  year-long requirement for all fourth-year systems engineering majors, in which students design, build and test a project of their choosing,

For more information regarding the systems engineering at the Naval Academy, please visit the department online.

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