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Marines put Microsoft Kinect to work, but not for gaming

Video game technology is used to create realistic 3D battle space maps for the military.

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Credit: REUTERS/Nick Adams

Microsoft has made the Kinect motion detection sensor available for use in commercial and non-gaming scenarios for some time, but for some reason it hasn't really caught on. We've heard next to no stories about people using it, although it could always be that they are keeping quiet for a competitive advantage.

But a military contractor has come up with something that has the U.S. Marine Corps interested. The Augmented Reality Sand Table is currently being developed by the Army Research Laboratory and was on display at the Modern Day Marine Expo that recently took place on Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

According to The Marine Corps Times, the set-up is simple: a table-sized sandbox is rigged with a Microsoft Kinect video game motion sensor and an off-the-shelf projector. Using existing software, the sensor detects features in the sand and projects a realistic topographical map that corresponds to the layout, which can change in real time as observers move the sand around in the box.

The setup can also project maps from Google Earth or other mapping and GPS systems, enabling units to visualize the exact terrain they'll be covering for exercises or operations. Eventually, they hope to add visual cues to help troops shape the sandbox to match the topography of a specified map.

This will help save time in laying out a battlefield scenario soldiers might be entering, according to Charles Amburn, senior instructional systems specialist for the lab's Simulation and Training Technology Center.

"With a traditional sand table, you've got to create the grid and then somebody’s got to go take that map and say, 'in this grid, there’s a hole here,'" Amburn told Marine Corps Times. "By the time it’s done, you've spent an hour setting up for an exercise or a scenario."

Eventually, the designers of the sandbox hope to involve remote bases or even international partners in conducting joint training and operations exercises. Future possibilities include large-scale models that could project over a gymnasium floor for a battalion briefing, and a smartphone version that could use a pocket-sized projector to turn any patch of dirt into an operational 3-D map.

Amburn told the Times that research on the system will continue for at least the next nine months, with new features rolled out every month or so.

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