Here's Microsoft's New Kinect Sensor

The new Kinect was announced yesterday, and it's better. Way better.

2 min read
Here's Microsoft's New Kinect Sensor

Yesterday, Microsoft held an event to announce its brand new Kinect sensor, and... Uh... Something else that we can't remember offhand, so it must not be that important. If you've hung around here long enough, you've probably noticed that Kinect sensors are on all kinds of robots nowadays, because they're inexpensive and pretty darn awesome. Plus, since so many people have them, there's a huge community that encourages ease of use.

But Kinect is nearly three years old, which is basically prehistoric in technological terms. It's time for something new, and better, and here it is.

Now, this is all sort of breaking-ish news, so we don't have any actual specs on the new Kinect yet. Most of the details that we've got are from various (brief) hands-on demos, but here's a rundown of the new stuff.

  • "High-definition," "high-fidelity" 3D vision. Obviously, the biggest deal for robotics is the improved 3D sensing. We're not sure what "high-definition" means, exactly, but it's definitely better, possibly 1080p 60fps better. The sensor itself operates based on time of flight (like a radar gun), making it at least three times more sensitive and lighting-independent. It can see the freakin' buttons on your shirt from several feet away! This means better object recognition, better mapping, better everything that you depend on 3D data for.
  • Active IR. Kinect can now see in the dark. IN THE DARK, PEOPLE!
  • Skeletal tracking with joint rotation. When combined with a physics model, the sensor can estimate muscle movements and forces.
  • Pulse detection (!). The sensor tracks color changes in your skin to determine your heartbeat.
  • Emotion detection. In addition to tracking binary things like eyes and mouth open or close, Kinect also estimates your emotional state and whether or not you're paying attention to it.

The most detailed demo we've seen is from Wired, which got an early look at the system, and their run through provides a good look at all of these features:

With all of this new tech crammed into the sensor, we've gotten way beyond just 3D vision. We're talking potential for the new Kinect to be a full-on human-robot interaction tool, with such detailed face tracking and gesture and expression recognition.

It's perhaps a bit premature to get too excited, since nobody's actually slapped one of these babies on a robot yet, but seeing as every single Xbox One will have a new Kinect included in the box, we're looking forward to a whole herd of new sensors being released into the wild. Just not until December, sigh. Let's hope it's worth the wait.

[ Xbox One ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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