Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Scientists use Microsoft Kinect to Control Laser Tweezers

In a science-savvy hack of Micosoft's Xbox Kinect, scientists are putting control of single molecules, cells and even strands of DNA in the palm of your hands.

In a paper published on the arXiv, Craig McDonald, David McGloin and their colleagues at the University of Dundee, are using the Kinect to manipulate optical tweezers-- intensely focused beams of light that can trap, move and rotate microscopic particles. They call it HoloHands. The intuitive Kinect control of optical tweezers and other scientific tools has the potential to make these tools accessible to a broader audience that includes interdisciplinary scientists, schools, and museums, the scientists say.

Frame from video of HoloHands. Image Source: arXiv.
When Microsoft released the software development platform for Kinect in 2011, they opened up the kind of crowd-sourced development that Apple achieved by allowing anyone to develop Apps (see Make's point on why this might not be as successful as the app store here). Pairing an infrared laser and a tiny camera, the Kinect locates objects in three-dimensional space and tracks the movement of specific body parts, repeating measurements 200 times per second. You can read the Microsoft research team's paper here.

Software developers are already writing Kinect apps to control flying robots, as a rehabilitation aid for stroke patients, to dock satellites in orbit, enable surgeons to manipulate images during surgery, and even help you shop at Whole Foods

Now, researchers are using the Kinect to control lasers and make scientific experiments tactile and intuitive.

Surrounding a particle with intensely focused beams of light, scientists use optical tweezers to trap individual cells, manipulate viruses, track molecular motors carrying material inside a cell, and measure the elasticity of a single strand of DNA. The process requires impeccably precise optical alignment and until recently, it was only possible to move one particle at a time. Now, there's an iTweezer App for that.

Image courtesy of C. McDonald et. al. / arXiv:1211.0220v1
 McGloin and his colleagues use the Kinect to give the user control of the optical tweezers through a series of hand gestures. A wave of the hand initiates the laser trap that grabs hold of particles. Through a series of other gestures, the researchers were able to "pick up," "move," and "put down" individual particles. Using two hands, the researchers manipulated multiple optical traps.

The researchers say that while Kinect control of optical tweezers provides an intuitive interface to manipulate microscopic particles, it won't be the best method of making quantitative measurements and future work will focus on addressing Kinect's time delay in translating user movement to the optics.

Here's my take: scientific experiments are often incredibly complex and computers play a significant role in every aspect from alignment to data collection and analysis. New ways of interacting with data offer the chance to bring the experiments off of the screen and back into your hands. At this rate, the future of data analysis might look a little more like this:
Image courtesy Leap Motion / leapmotion.com

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