One of the cheapest and most effective pieces of 3D mapping and gesture sensing hardware you could possibly hope for has just gotten an official SDK (software development kit) release. We're talking about Kinect, of course, and Microsoft has benevolently decreed that you no longer have to hack the sensor to get some non-gaming use out of it. Here's a few things you have to look forward to:
Raw sensor streams: Access to raw data streams from the depth sensor, color camera sensor, and four-element microphone array enables developers to build upon the low-level streams that are generated by the Kinect sensor.
Skeletal tracking: The capability to track the skeleton image of one or two people moving within the Kinect field of view make it easy to create gesture-driven applications.
Advanced audio capabilities: Audio processing capabilities include sophisticated acoustic noise suppression and echo cancellation, beam formation to identify the current sound source, and integration with the Windows speech recognition API.
Kinect is just one example of how robotics has been successfully piggybacking on other tech to get access to sensors and other hardware that's super effective and super cheap at the same time. Microsoft isn't making Kinect for robotics, but we don't care, we're perfectly happy to steal it and put it to better use than they ever could. I mean, come on, games? Psh! Try this stuff on for size.
The other advantage of having cheap and effective hardware with an SDK is that it helps the robotics community share ideas. It's the same basic philosophy as the PR2 (and ROS): if everyone's developing for the same platform, you can save yourself tons time and money by sharing code. So from a hobby robotics standpoint, you don't have to know a lot about Kinect to take advantage of it, since you can just adapt the clever things that other people have developed for the platform to your particular project.
You can download the Kinect SDK beta right now; it's free, but Windows 7 only and for use with Visual Studio in C++, C#, or VB. If you still need the hardware, Kinect sensors are a mere $150 at your friendly local gaming emporium.
Oh and by the way, we should also mention that the original Kinect hardware developer, PrimeSense, has partnered with Asus to develop a PC version of Kinect that they're calling "WAVI Xtion." No, I don't know how it's pronounced, but I do know that you can expect it in the second quarter of 2011, i.e. pretty much now.
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