Google prank + Kinect hack = useful health tech

Google's April Fools'-inspired Gmail Motion was meant as a joke, but researchers at the University of Southern California make it a reality with SLOOW, their Software Library Optimizing Obligatory Waving.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

Google's April Fools' Day prank Gmail Motion (above) was meant to be ridiculous (i.e., one puts more work into sending an e-mail with elaborate body language than by merely clicking "send"), but the tech is completely viable.

More than viable, actually. As in, it already exists.

Evan Suma, a postdoc research associate at the University of Southern California, unveiled his team's software, FAAST (for Flexible Action and Articulated Skeleton Toolkit), in late December. Using the Microsoft Kinect sensor, he employs the human body as a mouse and keyboard to operate various applications and video games. (His video playing World of Warcraft with body motions has 1.5 million views on YouTube, and includes a Royksopp track with the appropriate lyrics, "All that I want is keeping it easy.")

Suma tells me that when he went to work on Friday, April 1, and saw Google Motion, he thought, "Hey, I can already do that." So he put about 30 minutes into retooling FAAST for Gmail using body movements specific to the prank, and threw a video together in about two hours. Turning Google's joke on its head, he calls the program SLOOW, for Software Library Optimizing Obligatory Waving:

Google's own Matt Cutts, who recently helmed a Kinect hacking contest, clearly enjoyed the reply joke when he tweeted a link to the demo with the descriptive summary: "Nice!"

As part of the demo, Suma notes his team's disappointment when Gmail Motion appeared to be "buggy." But as the dust begins to settle after the I-am-such-a-clever-coder craze that has become April Fools' Day, the FAAST project at USC continues to explore a range of useful applications far beyond gaming, especially medical ones.

The two main projects the team is currently working on involve rehabilitation and surgery. For the latter, USC's Institute for Creative Technologies has teamed up with the schools' Department of Urology to help surgeons scroll through CT scans mid-surgery because, as Suma puts it, "They typically have to stop their surgery, walk over to a keyboard and mouse, put on gloves, manipulate the mouse, take the gloves off, and re-sterilize before going back to surgery."

As long as the surgeons put down their tools when they turn their bodies into keyboards, operations should proceed normally.