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When Microsoft first released the Kinect back in 2010, the company promised that it would be a game-changer in console development. It has had remarkable market success, but Kinect is beginning to move out of the living room and into research labs all over the planet.

What makes a $120 toy so valuable to scientists?

It turns out, for its small size and price, Kinect is actually a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment. The way it recognizes 3D objects is remarkably similar to sonar, using ‘time-of-flight’ technology. That means that when you stand in front of Kinect, the camera emits near-infrared lights and then measures how long it takes for that light to bounce back. The longer the light takes to get back, the further away the object is. Not only is this useful in determining how far away you are and whether you or not your couch are the same object, Kinect can render the information in 3D. Coupled with skeleton tracking to recognize human gestures, Kinect bundles a number of technologies that may just as useful to scientists as gamers. Modifying Kinect for science is still a very new concept, but here are some of the more exciting projects that are currently in development:

1. Teaching Basic Anatomy

As of writing, the medical community has probably been the most enthusiastic adopter of Kinect, using it to monitor dementia patients and view MRI scans in operating rooms. Eventually, Kinect may not merely help patients, but aspiring doctors as well.

This is where Mirracle comes in. Mirracle is a Kinect mod created at the Technical University of Munich solely to provide interactive anatomy lessons. Using existing tracking features, Mirracle projects a 3D window into your own body while you stand in front of a mirror. Granted, the interior you are viewing came from a scanned cadaver, but it is still a pretty nifty way to help you learn the difference between the ulna and scapla. A prototype is currently being tested at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam, but hopefully Mirracle will be coming soon to a medical school near you.

2. Diagnosing Psychiatric Disorders

In a traditional psychiatric evaluation, doctors ask patients to fill out self-assessment forms to help make a diagnosis. But what happens if your patient is a child? Current research suggests that children with various psychiatric disorders display abnormal movement and behaviors before the actual onset of a disorder. So when doctors try to make a diagnosis, they observe video footage of the child and consult with the parents. The problem is that when a diagnosis is made based largely on behavioral observation; the interpretation of the data is subjective rather than quantitative.

Dr. Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos of the University of Minnesota is hoping to change the way the evaluation process works, all with Kinect.  He is currently working to repurpose the Kinect to record and track body movements in children. The Kinect will eventually be able to analyze the data and identify any abnormalities that may lead to a diagnosis. Dr. Papanikolopoulos hopes that his work will eventually be used in the next few years to help diagnose autism, ADD and OCD. With solid quantitative data, the Kinect may add a crucial piece to making psychiatric diagnosis.

3. Exploring Glaciers and Asteroids

Thus far, we have discussed projects that rely principally on Kinect’s skeleton tracking features. Remember how I also mentioned that Kinect could scan and record information about objects in 3D? Scientists in a number of disciplines are just beginning to talk about tapping into the Kinect’s scanning capacity for research. Laser mapping (LIDAR) has already been in use for a while, but the equipment in question can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000. Not to mention, if you or a clumsy research assistant accidentally drops your LIDAR device, you can’t just run into Best Buy to get a new one. Only specialized facilities can repair LIDAR equipment, adding even more time and cost to a research project.

Although Kinect can only scan up to 16 feet away, it still has potential in geology. University of California at Santa Cruz Ph.D candidate Ken Mankoff has suggested that the Kinect can be modified as an inexpensive portable scanner to use in the field. He has already put it to use in his own work, monitoring the Rieperbreen Glacier in Norway to predict how the ice would flow towards the sea. Naor Movshovitz, also of the University of California at Santa Cruz, even envisions Kinect as a tool to study asteroids. Scientists will still have to address how to protect the device from moisture and extreme temperatures. However, it might not be long before even more geologists and astronomers learn of Kinect’s potential.

4. Scanning Archaeology Sites

Archaeology has come a very long way since the days of Howard Carter and King Tut. Contrary to popular opinion, archaeologists are not simply just digging up the past. They are trying to preserve the context of a site as well as find artifacts. Context is particularly important, since where an artifact is in the layers of the ground is crucial in establishing dates and the duration of human occupation on a site. If a site is poorly documented or looted, the archaeological value may be destroyed because the contexts are mixed up. Therefore, it is crucial to record the site down to the position of even the smallest pottery shard.

University of California at San Diego scientist Jürgen Schulze is planning a Kinect mod, dubbed ArKinect, in Jordan to map an archaeological site in 3D. The plan is to scan artifacts in 3D as soon as they are found on site. These 3D models could record far more details about individual artifacts than the traditional photograph, giving insight into how they were used. Eventually, Schulze hopes that ArKinect will be able to scan and digitize whole archaeological sites.

Better yet, where will these models be viewed?

Ladies and Gentleman, say hello to StarCAVE.  It is a 360-degree, 16 panel virtual reality environment where users can interact with 3D objects and environments. StarCAVE has already been used to explore environments in architecture, archaeology and biochemistry. A highly accurate archaeology site in 3D can help preserve a site’s context, as well as permit researchers from around the world to study it.

The Future

As of writing, most of these projects are either in prototype or testing phases. Kinect has only been around for a couple of years, and scientists are just beginning to see what potential the device has for their work. With more time and successful results, perhaps more scientists will start to seriously think about adding that $120 toy to their tool belt. Kinect has already given us incredible gameplay, and hopefully some amazing finds as well!

Buzz Aldrin next to a solar wind experiment at the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The site has just been designated as a historical resource by the state of California.

A lot of us have been scratching our heads lately about Newt Gingrich’s recent promise to have a permanent Moon base. Not only will Newt have it ready in less than 10 years, but by the end of his second term nonetheless! Sad to say, he’s not exactly alone in concocting crazy space schemes. The Japanese branch of Dominos proposed building  a new restaurant on the Moon last year, apparently responding to Pizza Hut’s highly publicized delivery to orbiting cosmonauts.  The founder of Cirque de Soleil, Richard Bigelow, is planning on launching the first space hotel by 2016. In case you can’t afford the $1 million-a-night fee, you can always purchase a bit of Moon property for the much more reasonable sum of $16-20.

As space increasingly becomes the playground of private enterprise, a fascinating conversation is emerging: what to do with the cultural heritage that lies beyond Earth? Since the launch of Sputnik over 50 years ago, people have been blasting all kinds of things into space. What will these artifacts tell future generations about the cultures and societies responsible for these technical innovations?

This is where space archaeologists come in.

There are a number of conflicting definitions for what exactly space archaeology entails. For some, it is simply the usage of remote sensing technology for archaeology on Earth. Others see it as artifacts found it in space, even allowing for the hypothetical possibility of uncovering alien civilizations in the distant future. For this article, we will focus on human material culture in space.

So, what sort of human material culture we do we have in space?  Most of these artifacts are usually referred to as ‘space junk’. These are little bits and pieces left over from various missions over the years, including decommissioned satellites and space probes. Notable examples include the US Vanguard 1 satellite (the oldest human-made object in orbit) and the Soviet Lunik 2 on the Moon. More often, space junk consists of smaller and less spectacular objects. Lunar boots, airsickness bags and even urine containers may be found on the Moon. Scientists estimate that there are more than 100 tons of worth of scrap metal and plastic on over eighty sites on the Moon. Because of the lack of air and an atmosphere, chances are that these artifacts are incredibly well preserved.

The historic significance of Buzz Aldrin’s lunar footprint and the American flag at the Apollo 11 landing site may be clear, but why care about the smaller items? Space junk is just space junk, right? Not quite.

The Vanguard 1 in 1958. It is the oldest human-made object still in orbit.

All of these artifacts are testament not only to the remarkable scientific achievements of the Human Race, but relics of a very specific culture and political situation. The Space Race was essentially yet another proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union. Space was the ‘ideological vacuum’. It was Terra Nova and Manifest Destiny all over again: a blank slate waiting to be filled with human ideals. For both sides of the Cold War, demonstrations of science and technological prowess were a means to win the allegiance of Third World nations.  Vanguard 1 for instance was a direct affront to the Soviet Sputnik, serving as an ideological ambassador for the United States. Today, this ‘dead’ satellite is waiting for a future archaeologist to use it to make inferences on the cultural, technological and behavioral patterns of the mid-20th century United States.

CRM (cultural resource management) laws already exist to protect sites of historic, cultural and natural importance on Earth, but the legal status of human artifacts in space is much murkier.  The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty dictated that ‘space debris’ legally remained the property of the governments that shot them into space in the first place. However, the treaty made no allowances for the jurisdiction of the land on which these artifacts may rest. For instance, Buzz Aldrin’s footprint is property of the United States government, but the Moon dust on which it was made is not.

With more private individuals attempting to enter space, in theory there could be actual looting of  potential heritage sites. Space artifacts already have proven to be hot commodities in the past. The title to the Soviet robotic spacecraft Luna 21 and Lunakhod 2 has already been sold for over $60,000, and a lunar core sample from Luna 16 went for $400,000. It’s only a matter of time before we see the gold replica olive branch left by the Apollo 11 crew on ebay.

Don’t panic yet though! It’s not all doom and gloom out there. California registered the Apollo 11 landing site as a historical resource in 2010. New Mexico, Florida and Texas are pondering similar moves. If their results are successful, the site could become a national monument and a UNESCO world heritage site.  Space archaeologists are also becoming increasingly vocal activists for space heritage, spreading the word before these reminders of the Space Race are gone forever. At the rate things are going, archaeology and cultural resource management may boldly go where no man has gone before!