How gaming technology could hack crime scene investigations

October 17, 2016 by Mehzeb Chowdhury, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

Sherlock Holmes could examine a crime scene with nothing but his immense powers of deduction and perhaps a trusty magnifying glass. But real investigators today have much more sophisticated technology at their disposal for carrying out the crucial task of documenting and analysing a crime scene. 3-D laser scanning, for example, allows investigators to quickly build a detailed and highly accurate computer model of the scene.

The problem is that this equipment is hugely expensive, often costing tens of thousands of pounds and making it inaccessible to smaller police forces and those facing funding cuts. Handheld scanners are available at a cheaper price, but they are more suited to smaller objects or human profiles, rather than documenting a whole . However, the task of capturing this detail in 3-D could be simplified with technology from an unlikely source —- the gaming industry.

Microsoft's Xbox Kinect is a motion-sensing device designed to let people control and take part in video games using gestures and body movements. The original 360 device sold 24m units in the first two years after it was released in 2010. Microsoft later released a development kit that allowed other programmers to hack into the Kinect's motion sensing capabilities and use it to control their own software. This opened an amazing new world of possibilities.

Developers used it to control the routine functions of computers but also for more specialist applications such as operating surgical robots in place of systems that would otherwise have cost US$50,000 (£39,000). But perhaps the Kinect's greatest function is its ability to capture landscapes and objects in three dimensions, with accurate colour mapping and texturing.

Last year, researchers from the University of Vigo, Spain, proposed that the original 360 Kinect might be useful for 3-D modelling crime scenes. Their results showed that the 360 Kinect produced too much noise (visual distortion caused by low light) to produce sufficiently accurate measurements unless placed very close to the objects it was scanning. At just three metres away, the Kinect produced errors of between 2-10% in the measurements. While this may seem small, accuracy is everything when it comes to crime scene recording.

Cheap tech. Credit: Jared721/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The updated Xbox One version of the Kinect features a camera with a pixel depth of 512x424 pixel depth camera (compared to the original's 320x240 sensor), which means it can capture a wider image with better focus, even in low light situations. The software enhancements and hardware improvements means that it now transmits two gigabits of data per second. This translates to faster capture times when panning and tilting the sensor to record 3-D spaces and, most importantly, less noise and measurement inaccuracies.

The Kinect's improvements were so significant that NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab signed up for Microsoft's developer programme in November 2013. The NASA engineers used the new Kinect in combination with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to create a system that could allow an astronaut to manipulate a robotic arm just by moving their own arm in the same way. They called it "the most immersive interface" they had ever built.

Building your own 3-D scanner

To capture a crime scene in its entirety, the Xbox One Kinect sensor (£89) could be combined with a simple, cheap (£30) computer such as the Arduino Leonardo, a Raspberry Pi, a robotic rotation kit (£60) and tilt kit (£25). This would enable crime scene examiners to automatically scan an entire location in 360 degrees. A laptop with reasonable processing power (at least £999) and a Windows adapter (£38) would also be needed to run the system, but the total cost of the necessary equipment would still come in at less than £1,500. This would be about 43 times less than pre-existing commercial systems available on the market today.

The assembly and operation would be simple and most of the components work straight out of the box without any need for tinkering. Open-source software is freely available and even commercial offerings go for less than £150. Specialised software systems only come bundled with hardware and cost as much as £150,000.

Although more crime scene technologies have come onto the market, their price has not significantly come down, so they are still out of reach for thousands of police forces from across the world. The possibilities of Kinect suggest that maybe it's time for police forces to take a proactive step in improving their own technologies with a hack of their own. Using a Kinect-based system would be a simple, cost-effective method that could aid investigations and ensure justice in court.

Explore further: Microsoft to add Kinect Fusion to Kinect for Windows SDK

Related Stories

Microsoft to add Kinect Fusion to Kinect for Windows SDK

November 6, 2012

(—Senior Program Manager for Microsoft's Kinect for Windows, Chris White recently announced via a blog post that Kinect Fusion will soon be incorporated into the Kinect for Windows Software Development Kit (SDK). ...

Team develops faster, higher quality 3-D camera

April 24, 2015

When Microsoft released the Kinect for Xbox in November 2010, it transformed the video game industry. The most inexpensive 3-D camera to date, the Kinect bypassed the need for joysticks and controllers by sensing the user's ...

Microsoft Kinect makes moves on computers

June 17, 2011

Microsoft on Thursday began letting software developers imbue computers with voice and motion-sensing technology from its Kinect controller for the Xbox 360 videogame console.

Microsoft to release a free SDK for Kinect this spring

February 22, 2011

( -- Kinect, Microsoft's attempt to bring motion controls to the Xbox 360 video game console, is soon to have a non-commercial SDK released for it that will hopefully allow third-party developers to create new ...

Sales of Microsoft's Kinect top 10 million

March 9, 2011

Microsoft said Wednesday that sales of the gesture-sensing Kinect for the Xbox 360 videogame console had topped 10 million units, making it the fastest-selling consumer electronics device ever.

Recommended for you

Volumetric 3-D printing builds on need for speed

December 11, 2017

While additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3-D printing, is enabling engineers and scientists to build parts in configurations and designs never before possible, the impact of the technology has been limited by ...

Tech titans ramp up tools to win over children

December 10, 2017

From smartphone messaging tailored for tikes to computers for classrooms, technology titans are weaving their way into childhoods to form lifelong bonds, raising hackles of advocacy groups.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.