Here in the future, we don't just have park lights that run on dog poop; we're so advanced that cutting-edge technology occasionally shows up in the toy aisle at Wal-Mart.
Case in point: Microsoft's Kinect, ostensibly a "controller-free" peripheral that lets you direct games on an Xbox 360 with hand motions (á la the Wiimote). Essentially, it's an affordable (around $150) 3D motion-tracking camera — and over at MIT, it's being used for all kinds of off-brand activities that call to mind dystopian science-fiction plots.
Back in November, Philipp Robbel, a grad student with the Personal Robots Group at MIT's Media Lab, paired the Kinect and that other consumer-tech poster child, the Roomba. The resulting monster — Robbel calls it a KinectBot — is a round little robot with a huge scanner sitting on top of it. Send it into a room, and it scans its environment and constructs a virtual, three-dimensional model of everything it sees. The Kinect's gesture-recognition ability means that you can tell it where to go just by pointing. Robbel tells bostinnovation.com that he sees a use for the KinectBot as a rescue robot. We know it will eventually give rise to a race of Cylons who will destroy us all. Still, for now it's pretty cool.
Meanwhile, over at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, robotics student Garratt Gallagher went one better, figuring out how to get the Kinect to recognize finer gestures using all 10 fingers. You can see him on YouTube, conducting a series of photos on a screen with all the panache of Mr. Scientology himself.
Watching him, you get the freaky feeling that we're just a few months away from what Arthur C. Clarke would call sufficiently advanced technology — i.e., indistinguishable from magic.