MIT researchers used a $150 Microsoft Kinect to 3D scan a giant T. rex skull

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MIT’s Camera Culture group has been able to successfully capture a high-resolution 3D scan of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull using about $150 worth of equipment and some free software.

The skull, which belongs to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, was discovered in 1990 and is the largest and most complete T. rex skull yet found. However, it has some strange holes in the jawbone that have puzzled researchers for some time. Early on, it was believed that the holes in the jaw were teeth marks. However, the holes are irregularly placed and inconsistent with biting patterns. More recently, researchers believed the holes were caused by an infection from eating diseased prey.

Last year, a group of forensic dentists tried to find out more about the holes by 3D-scanning an image of the skull using some high-tech equipment. However, the skull was too large for their equipment to handle.

MIT’s researchers decided to give it a try recently using the much cheaper Microsoft Kinect, an in-depth-sensing camera and free MeshLab software. Though MIT’s Media Lab does have a prototype system for producing high-resolution 3D scans, that system wasn’t ready yet for such a large scan, so the researchers improvised with the cheaper devices.

That was a pretty smart move, as most high-resolution scanning systems out on the market can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a resolution of about 50 to 100 micrometers. But, the Kinect works just fine for this type of job, with a resolution of 500 micrometers for about $100, enabling researchers to now take a good look at the skull without damaging the original.

Already, the group has been able to observe the mysterious holes taper from the outside in, undermining the hypothesis of a mouth infection. And now that the 3D image can be shared in the cloud, more research can be done to determine what may have happened.

“A lot of people will be able to start using this,” says Anshuman Das, a research scientist at the Camera Culture group. “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.”