University of California, San Diego students will be going to Jordan soon to take part in an archaeological dig that's decidely futuristic: As they uncover artifacts and structures in the soil, they'll be using high-quality 3-D scanning to record accurate positional details--rich data that could be incredibly useful in the future. Instead of using expensive and complex imaging systems like LIDAR, however, the team will use a hacked Microsoft Kinect  to do the job for them.
It's actually using a system developed by the California Institute for Telecommunications and IT (Calit2), which taps directly into Kinect's streaming data feed that's a blend of 3-D positional data (achieved by projecting bright, invisible spots of infrared light onto objects and then observing them with an IR camera) and color video images. The Calit2 team has perfected this system so it's useful for making fast and accurate 3-D scans of objects that can then be inserted into a virtual world like Second Life--the trick is to correctly register all the images recorded of the object so they match up next to each other properly as you wave the Kinect around. Thus far the Calit Kinect hack uses an overhead video tracking device to do this, which limits it for indoor use--a tweak is already planned to let it work in an outdoors settings, however, and its inventor thinks it could even be used to scan whole buildings (at which point Google, with its penchant for doing this inaccurately for its Street View system, may get interested).
At the Jordanian site, the idea is to use the hacked Kinect to quickly record any found artifacts almost as soon as they emerge from the turf. These 3-D images allow for much more detailed analysis after the fact, without needing to disturb the physical artifacts, and could even enable more insight into the mind of the person who created them long ago. Calit2 has a solution perfect for this too: StarCAVE, which is an immersive 3-D virtual reality system. A 3-D model of the dig site as it progresses also allows for faster and more accurate tracking of where physical structures and artifacts were located.
The Kinect system, as well as being cheaper and simpler than a LIDAR installation, is in some sense better suited for the dig environment: It's much less expensive, so accidental damage won't be such a pain, and its handheld nature means it's easier to use when stumbling around among soil and rocks.
[Image: Flickr user europedistrict ]