For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about Microsoft has just released a device called the Kinect which attaches to the Xbox. Using cameras, infrared detectors, microphones, and sundry other "sensors" the Kinect is capable of recognizing body movements and sounds. Speak and the Xbox will hear you. Wave your arm and your onscreen avatar will wave its own arm and I don't just mean "an avatar," I do mean "your avatar" since the software behind the Kinect is capable of recognizing individuals. It's motion control without the remote. The Kinect is being compared to Sony's Move controller and Nintendo's Wiimote. I do not believe this is an appropriate comparison. They're playing in the same market, for now, but they're not the same thing. I think Microsoft was making something else entirely, and it all hinges on that phrase "without the remote."
This was supposed to be the future, goes a common joke, I want my jetpack. I want my video phones. I want my voice-controlled computers. I want my "Minority Report" gesture control. Well, four out of five isn't so bad. We'll keep working on the jetpacks, but in the meantime, the Kinect prototypes all those other things (and quite a few more)
Sure, you can play games with it - some of them are even fun - but the real point is that you can control your Xbox with it. The games are incidental.
I call it a prototype and a beta test because right now it has bugs that need to be ironed out. A video game system is the perfect place to start such a technology. No business will accept such bugs, not if they have to pay for it, but market it as a game and suddenly people will line up for the thing. They'll deal with the bugs because they're having fun. They'll complain, and Microsoft will listen. They'll be delighted, and Microsoft will listen to that, too. They'll play with this new toy and Microsoft will learn enough to turn that toy into a tool.
The Kinect has already been hacked. It took less than a week for clever programmers to write whole new purposes and functions for the Kinect. Microsoft initially released a statement condemning such hacks. At the time, I thought it was a legal CYA: If someone figures out how to infiltrate the FAA and take over airplane flights by holding out their arms and making buzzing noises, Microsoft could always claim "we told them not to." That initial opinion was reinforced when a Microsoft employee admitted they're not actually going to do anything about the hacking, that they are, in fact, delighted. But just the other day, Microsoft made a third clarification: they ARE delighted, they do want people to continue what they're doing, but what they're doing isn't hacking per se. The so-called-hackers are using the outputs without modifying the internals. That's fine, says Microsoft, please continue, the other stuff is still illegal. So now I just think it was supposed to be an IP CYA and someone in the R&D department failed to notify the legal department that the rest was highly desirable. It's free research from the masses. It's crowdsourcing (although disorganized and organic). I'm sure Microsoft has someone taking notes about, devising applications for, and learning from every new hack that gets posted on the net.
And there are already some pretty exciting things out there:
- The guy who can render what the Kinect sees as a 3D environment, even going so far as to accurately measure the objects in it
- The guy who can modify the skins/appearance of the people (and cats) in Kinect's sight
- The pair who turned the Kinect into a digital puppet show
- The group who combined the Kinect and the Roomba into a robot that accepts takes gesture control
- The group who uses the Kinect as a multitouch, multiuser interface for Windows 7
I'd expect that Microsoft is pretty excited about that one, but I'd also expect that they've been working on that exact interface before they ever released the Kinect to the public. Consider that Microsoft is the same company that produces the Microsoft Surface, a multitouch interface designed for use in a public/group setting. The lessons and applications learned working on the Surface will almost certainly translate well to the Kinect, and vice versa. The big difference is that the Kinect can do it in three dimensions.
Now consider that the Xbox already permits DVD watching, as well as access to Netflix, Twitter, and Facebook. The update that allowed the Xbox software to handle Kinect integration was the same update that added access to ESPN 3. I am certain that this is not a coincidence. It's one more incentive for people to interact with this new device, one more thing people can do without hunting for a remote. Once people are comfortable with this in the living room, it won't be difficult to move it to the office, or anywhere else for that matter. Once people are comfortable with this in the living room, they won't want to operate any other way.
I'm really looking forward to the future. Jetpacks can wait. This is cool now.