New Uses for Microsoft’s Kinect Gaming Console

Futuristic computer interface from Minority Report, with Tom CruiseStereo cameras in Microsoft’s Kinect accessory for the Xbox 360 gaming console can see things in 3-D and enable gestures and body movement as human interfaces to video games, eliminating the need for handheld controllers. But hackers are finding other uses beyond gaming.

Within weeks of the device’s release last November, someone posted a $1,000 bounty to whoever posted the first open source Kinect device drivers, according to this Wired magazine article, and Kinect took off.

Microsoft was horrified at first, tried to stop the hackers, and even threatened to prosecute them. But as the company saw the many imaginary new uses, which its own engineers never envisioned, it shifted its stance and started a love affair with the hackers themselves. Now Microsoft openly recruits academic and hobbyist hackers and encourages Kinect hacking with its own software developer toolkit. Some of the many new applications relate to healthcare, and we’ll surely see more soon.

  • Besides supporting hackers, Microsoft is doing some of its own Kinect development outside of the gaming space. They’re reportedly working on ways to recognize faces and expressions, which might work with Skype video conferencing and Facebook. But I remember similar research by IBM’s automotive business unit 10 years ago. The objective was to determine when is the best time to get their attention for things like reading incoming mails aloud.
  • A team at Sunnybrook found a novel new medical use for the Xbox Kinect by giving surgeons the ability to manipulate computer images without touching the PC  keyboard or mouse.
  • Researchers at University of Konstanz are using Kinect to help blind and visually impaired people navigate.
  • Engineering students at MIT used the Kinect to create a Minority Reports style computer interface.
  • A group at UC Berkeley attached a Kinect to a small four rotors helicopter to enable it to fly autonomously.
  • University students in Munich put Kinect on a robotic car so it could navigate an obstacle course on its own.
  • Microsoft is working on online support groups that let people participate without disclosing their identity by using avatars instead of their own image.
  • And one of the latest Kinect hacks is a shopping cart that loyally follows disabled shoppers. The video starts by showing what a wheelchair bound shopper faces today, followed by what it may soon be like.

An Encouraging Outlook for Innovation

The once expensive sensors and accelerometers no longer have limited availability only to university and corporate research teams. They’re available at BestBuy for $100 or less, and that has inspired do-it-yourselfers to innovate like never before. Companies that tap this innovation have an advantage, and thankfully, many major manufacturers learned long ago about the advantages of establishing a platform that attracts 3rd party developers, even if some have forgotten those lessons.

IBM’s Personal Computer is an example. It was developed by just 12 engineers for launch in 1981 using off-the-shelf parts and an open architecture. That open architecture was a key ingredient to the product’s success, since it also attracted hardware and software developers into the IBM “camp.”

Microsoft created a similar camp with its Windows operating system and quickly had the advantage as the market gorilla, where competing “chips” and “monkeys” scavenged for scraps. As the gorilla, Microsoft’s costs were low, because its software was preloaded on nearly all new PCs, and third party developers hoping to ride the wave advertised their products “THIS for Windows” or “THAT for Windows.” Microsoft didn’t even have to advertise. Everyone knew they were the gorilla.

Apple did the same sort of thing with the Apple App Store and iOS operating system, which runs iPhones, iPods and iPads. Of the 187 million iOS devices in the market at the end of February, 57.75% were iPhones, 32.09% were iPod touches, and 10.16% were iPads. That’s one powerful camp. Microsoft shipped an impressive 10 million Kinect systems in its first 4 months, but Apple shipped over 18 million iPhones in 2Q 2011 alone.

Google is also trying to create its own camp for developers by releasing its Android Open Accessory Development Kit. That’s part of how it’s encouraging development of Android-powered devices.

Even small companies like iRobot learned that supporting academics and hobbyists helps build awareness and “buzz.” iRobot, which makes a robotic vacuum cleaner that can navigate around a home on its own, has started to offer a special vacuumless version – iRobot Create – for tinkerers and modders.

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