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12 November 2012

Researchers connect Xbox Kinect with laser tweezers

Researchers from the University of Dundee have shown how one of the world’s most popular video game consoles can enhance technology used to carry out important laser investigations.

Dr David McGloin and his team at the Applied Optical Manipulation Group harnessed the Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensor to control optical tweezers. The tweezers use highly focused laser beams to trap, move and rotate particles as small as cells.

Widely used in labs across the world since the 1970s, optical tweezers have many applications, but finding an interface with which to control them has long proved problematic for physicists.

Kinect’s pioneering motion sensors enable gamers to direct action using bodily movements rather than any form of game controller. Dr McGloin, himself an Xbox owner, and his colleagues spotted the potential to use this technology to direct the lasers used as optical tweezers.

They developed an interface - called HoloHands - that allows scientists to use Kinect to control the intricate movements of tiny particles with their bodies. Users can pick up and push minuscule particles visible on a computer screen by moving their bodies. By waving their hand, users can create a trapping region to hold the particles which can then be picked up and moved with further arm and hand movements.

'We have a lot of video game enthusiasts here, and we came to the conclusion that Kinect had the potential to allow us to build a very natural and intuitive interface that would appeal to a wide range of potential users,' explained Dr McGloin.

'We're always open to new ways of working and keeping an open mind about these things is essential in science. This shows how technology that at first seems as far removed from the academic lab as it’s possible to be, can actually be of great benefit to us.'

The device consists of a camera, infrared laser to measure distance and a microchip that interprets the data to track people in 3D. The team has tested HoloHands by moving silica microspheres using their lab's otherwise standard infrared holographic laser system.

Before it can be used for research purposes, HoloHands must overcome the time lags and misinterpretations of body movement familiar to Kinect users. Further work must also be carried out to work out how to perform quantitative measurements but Dr McGloin says the team has earmarked other uses for HoloHands.

'There is great potential as a teaching aid that could show a new generation of students the potential of optical tweezers,' he continued. 'Optical tweezers and beam manipulation technologies are increasingly found in undergraduate teaching laboratories. The use of a Kinect offers a fairly low-cost interface to control hi-tech equipment and allow interdisciplinary skills to be developed.

'In addition, Kinect control of such devices opens them up to use in areas such as science centres and exhibitions, as well as in other forms of outreach activities. Using familiar devices such as this and showing how the technology is the same as used in labs will undoubtedly help to engage with members of the public and explain our work to them.'


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