June 26, 2013— -- In preparation for the Xbox One, Microsoft has been preparing the next version of the Kinect, the company's motion-tracking camera. Scientists, on the other hand, have been fiddling with the old Kinect almost since it was released two and a half years ago. It's been used to visualize proteins and activate Tesla coils. The latest breakthrough: putting cockroaches on autopilot.
Last year, Alper Bozkurt and his lab at North Carolina State University showed that a cockroach could be piloted by remote control. "We used joysticks, like the kind you fly remote airplanes with," he told ABC News. "But some of our insects didn't respond well to our commands." He said that the people operating the controls made mistakes while piloting their six-legged subjects.
His lab's latest work no longer relies on a person operating a remote control, but instead uses the Kinect. According to Bozkurt, the Kinect has become a popular tool in the neural engineering community because it's both easily available and cheaper compared with other motion-tracking systems.
The cockroaches themselves are cheap and widely available. Bozkurt uses Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which can grow up to seven centimeters long. "They're these fancy tropical cockroaches that when you touch them, make this sound," he says, "People can keep them as pets."
In their experiments, the Kinect is suspended above the cockroach holding arena. Then, Bozkurt either physically sketches a path on the arena's surface or digitally sketches one on a computer. Once the cockroach is placed inside the arena, the Kinect starts detecting where the cockroach is relative to the path.
Whenever the Kinect detects that the cockroach is veering off the intended path, it sends a signal that goes through a central computer and is then transmitted wirelessly to a circuit on the cockroach's back. The circuit lightly shocks one of the cockroach's antennae, which the insect uses to navigate its environment.
Shocking one antenna will make the cockroach turn in the opposite direction. "They think there's an obstacle in front of them," says Bozkurt. If the Kinect wants the cockroach to turn left, it will shock the right antenna, and vice versa.
One of the goals of the research is to apply this technology to search and rescue missions following natural disasters. Though they are big for being bugs, the cockroaches are small and agile enough to navigate through small holes after a building collapse.
The Kinect won't be able to see through rubble and debris following an earthquake, but Bozkurt is working on a different way to visualize the environment. "One of my colleagues at NC State is working on a project that uses radio waves to locate the cockroaches relative to their surroundings," he said.
It might be a little alarming to see and hear a hissing swarm of roaches coming to the rescue, but Bozkurt is confident that this is the right direction to take. He even sees a partnership in the making. "We feed them and they search for the people for us."