Aug. 31, 2012 at 8:06 PM ET
Swedish researchers are hoping to create a visual dictionary to improve the ability of robots to understand the world around them, but they can't do it alone. They need your help — if you've got a Kinect.
Robots are smart in that they can store tons of information and process it quickly, but unlike humans they haven't been walking the Earth for long, and have very little practical knowledge of common objects. How heavy is a coffee mug? No data, though a human could easily size it up and make a good estimate. What's that thing on the floor? A human would recognize it as a shoe, but to a robot, it could be anything.
A project called Kinect@Home is being led by Alper Aydemir at Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology. Aydemir hopes that by outsourcing that common knowledge to humans, robots will develop a better idea of their surroundings. To that end, he has started a database of 3-D models of everyday objects like books and shoes, captured with the cheap and effective Kinect.
Microsoft's Kinect is normally an accessory for the Xbox 360 that detects the position and movements of players in 3-D. But it's also a very cheap way to give a computer or robot vision with depth perception, and can be used to create nearly instant 3-D models of any household object. Robots can then use this data and compare it with what they see, perhaps making a match.
Aydemir started the project this week and hopes that many people will contribute, and that the database will be widely used. He tells the BBC: "This way, people get easy access to the ever improving state-of-the-art 3-D modelling techniques for free and researchers gain insights as to what works and what doesn't by using the data."
You can browse a gallery of objects in 3-D here, from people to guitars, and even submit your own. The ones there are a little crude, but with care, a Kinect can actually produce very accurate models; it is advised to move slowly and keep the object within a few feet of the device.
If you feel like helping out, there's a link to download a Web browser plugin at the project page. It works in Windows 7 and 8 and actually for Xbox as well if you want to point your console's browser there, after which you can click "make recording" and help some robot somewhere get a little wiser about the world.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.