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06 July 2017

Researchers are solving the mysteries of a 65-million-year-old dino skull with Kinect

One day, you’re a terrible killing and eating machine. Flash forward 65 million years, and you’re being conquered by a $150 gaming accessory.

That’s the new reality of the majestic T-Rex, reduced by time to fossilized remains. Of course, mysteries remain — and they could be solved with one of your favorite gaming devices.

At Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, scientists were curious about holes in the jaw of their own five-foot-long T-Rex skull. They wanted to capture a decent 3D image to investigate. 

MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Group was working on some next-gen 3D scanning technology, Polarized 3D, but it wasn’t ready, so they opted to try something simple and cheap that works in living rooms around the world: Microsoft’s Kinect 3D sensor.

Introduced in 2010, Microsoft Kinect uses infrared cameras to produce a 3D mesh that covers objects and people in a room, creating a detailed depth map of the space. It’s sensitive enough to identify individual fingers and can even see when you stick out your tongue. Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console uses it for interactive action and sports games. 

For the Field Museum, the Camera Culture Group paired the devices with open source software from MeshLab, which processes and edits the kind of 3D triangular meshes Microsoft Kinect produces.

A photo of the T-Rex skull (upper left) compared with Kinect scans.

A photo of the T-Rex skull (upper left) compared with Kinect scans.

MIT’s Media Lab reported their findings in the scientific journal PLOS One.

According to the paper, “The depth resolution from the Kinect sensor was measured to be around 0.6 mm, which is ideal for scanning large specimens with reasonable structural detail.”

When used at home, Microsoft Kinect usually sits on a cabinet just below your TV. To scan the dinosaur skull, however, one of the researchers wore the device on a special harness so he could move it around and capture all the skull features. He had to do this while maintaining a fixed distance from the skull, otherwise the depth measurement would be completely off. 

The whole scan took about 2 minutes.

There are other hand-held 3D scanning devices MIT’s Culture Camera Group might have considered, like the $379 Structure Sensor, which attaches to an iPad, manages the distance from the scanning subject on its own, and produces sub-millimeter resolution scans.

Analyzing holes in a giant T-Rex skull is just the beginning.

 “A lot of people will be able to start using this,” said the paper’s lead author and Camera Culture group researcher Anshuman Das in a release on the findings. “That’s the message I want to send out to people who would generally be cut off from using technology — for example, paleontologists or museums that are on a very tight budget. There are so many other fields that could benefit from this.” 

As for the scans, they appear to disprove the long-held theory that the T-Rex jaw holes were the result of bite marks from another dinosaur. The tapering of the holes also discounted the theory of infection. 

Figuring out the cause of these holes will take further research, but again, affordable 3D scans may provide the answer. Researchers have already produced 1/8th-sized 3D-printed replicas of the T-Rex skull.

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