Jul 6, 2017 | By Tess

The Camera Culture group from MIT’s Media Lab has been able to successfully capture a high-res 3D scan of a five-foot-long tyrannosaurus rex skull using a Microsoft Kinect. The MIT group came on board for the project after a team of forensic dentists was unable to capture a digital scan of the large-scale dinosaur skull with its own scanning technology.

The project all started last year, when a team of forensic dentists were invited to 3D scan the massive T. rex skull at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The skull, they noticed, possessed some mysterious holes in the jawbone, which they wanted to find out more about.

Using high-resolution dental 3D scanners, the team set about scanning the dinosaur’s jaw, but was ultimately unable to capture a full scan of sufficient quality. That’s when they reached out to Camera Culture, a group from MIT’s Media Lab who had been developing a high-res 3D scanning system.

Even that scanning system wasn’t equipped for the large-scale task at hand, however, so the Camera Culture team got to work improvising a system that would work with the skull. Using only $150 worth of hardware and a free software program, the team was able to construct a 3D scanning system that was capable of scanning the giant skull.

The scanning system they used consisted of a Microsoft Kinect, a depth-sensing camera used primarily for gaming purposes, and MeshLab software. The Kinect was used to produce a point cloud of an object (a 3D map made up of points), while MeshLab was used to analyze those points to generate a 3D shape of the scanned object.

Compared to most high-end scanning systems that are on the market, which cost up to tens of thousands of dollars, the much more affordable (we’re talking under $200) Kinect system is still perfectly viable. The discrepancy is the level of resolution, as the Kinect’s resolution is only about 500 micrometers, compared to 50 to 100 micrometer resolution that top-of-the-line scanners have. Still, for most applications, the Kinect can be useful.

“A lot of people will be able to start using this,” said Camera Culture researcher Anshuman Das, the first author of the project’s study. “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.”

The T. rex skull that was 3D scanned is also worth mentioning, as it is, to date, the “largest and most complete” T. rex skull that has been found. The mysterious holes in its jaw that incited the whole 3D scanning project were long believed to be teeth marks from an attack, though more recent discoveries showed that the holes’ spacing was inconsistent with bite patterns.

(Images: Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago / MIT News)

A more recent theory suggested that the holes were from a protozoal infection caused by infected prey. Now, however, with insight gained from the 3D scan of the skull, both these theories are cast in doubt. (The scan revealed that the holes taper from the outside in, which would not be the case for a mouth infection.)

With the 3D scan of the T. rex’s skull, researchers from all over can now consult and examine the strange holes. In fact, 3D printing could even be used to help research teams recreate the skull for physical examination—a task which was demonstrated by the Camera Culture team, which 3D printed a few one-eighth scale 3D printed models of the skull.

“Three-dimensional scanning has really revolutionized paleontology,” said Peter Mackovicky, associate chair of paleontology at the Field Museum. “We’re able to ask and answer a lot of quantitative questions. But in general we are a pretty underfunded field, and for a lot of folks, off-the-shelf scanning systems are still out of the usual reach of a research budget. Having something that is very cheap, versatile, and relatively fast is certainly useful. And one nice thing about [the new] system is that your results are immediate. You can see in real time whether you’re capturing the data you need, which is a great benefit.”



Posted in 3D Scanning



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