Talk about gaming the system (in a good way) — MIT researchers have been using the motion-detecting Xbox Kinect to study how crowds move, in hopes of harnessing that data to design more effective public spaces.

The Kinect, introduced by Microsoft two years ago as an Xbox add-on, lets players navigate video games through movement and spoken commands, all without touching a game controller. Researchers at MIT’s Senseable City Lab saw the infrared sensor’s potential for cost-effective tracking of pedestrian movements in congested spaces — crucial data to compile as more people pile into urban centers.

“As cities become more crowded and congested, we increasingly rely on cameras to study pedestrian movement in urban environments,” the Kinect Kinetics project website states. “Yet obtaining individual movement trajectories in space is often slow and expensive, requiring people to watch and manually annotate videos. Despite advances, computer image analysis remains inaccurate without some manual assistance.”

As an alternative to the deathly dull task of watching videos of crowds frame-by-frame, scientists suspended three Kinect devices from the ceiling over a bustling 825-foot-long hallway at MIT. Each gadget collected 3D images of people walking through the area. Using hierarchical clustering, the system could automatically detect the movement of individual pedestrians with 94 percent accuracy compared to manual annotation.

Researchers found that walkers tended to sort themselves into two passing lanes, following the same flow of traffic as cars would. MIT scientists also discovered that people tend to move “like atoms,” automatically walking away from obstacles and each other to avoid collisions.

“When you have this data, you can really use it to better design spaces for human interaction,” Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab, told Fast Company. He added, “in the end… the goal is to design places where you can better orient yourself and where you can have a more sociable experience.”

Pictures below, courtesy of Kinect Kinetics:

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