In order to explain strange holes in the jawbone of a coveted Tyrannosaurus rex skull, nicknamed Sue, a team of forensic dentists last year received approval to conduct 3D scans.
When the researchers applied their high-resolution dental scanners to the massive five-foot-long skull, they discovered the machines couldn’t handle the incredible size of the ancient beast. In need of an alternative solution, the team contacted the Camera Culture group at MIT’s Media Lab.
Camera Culture researchers recently developed a prototype system that produces high-resolution 3D scans. However, even this experimental design wasn’t up for the task. To upgrade the prototype, the team used some free software and hardware totaling just $150 to successfully scan the entire skull.
The low-cost solution centers around a Microsoft Kinect, which is a depth-sensing camera primarily used for video games. The software within the Kinect produces a 3D map of coordinates known as a point cloud. Each point reflects short bursts of infrared light back to a sensor. The team then used free software, called MeshLab, to examine the point cloud data.
“A lot of people will be able to start using this,” says Anshuman Das, a Camera Culture group research scientist. “That’s the message I want to send out to people who would generally be cut off from using technology—for example, paleontologists or museums that are on a very tight budget. There are so many other fields that could benefit from this.”
When the skull was scanned, the camera was mounted on a chest harness. Due to the area where the skull was located, numerous obstacles made finding a path at a fixed distance difficult. However, once a safe route was established, it took only two minutes to compete the scan.
Utilizing the Microsoft Kinect information, a team of people, including veterinarians, paleontologists, anthropologists, and dentists, are currently analyzing the mysterious holes in the T. rex jaw. Discovered in 1990, the T. rex remains are the biggest and most complete record ever found.
The entire Media Lab report detailing the Kinect-sensor system can be found in the latest issue of the journal PLOS One.