Freaks, Geeks and Microsoft: How Kinect Spawned a Commercial Ecosystem
When the Kinect was introduced in November 2010 as a $150 motion-control add-on to Microsoft’s Xbox consoles, it drew attention from more than just video-gamers. A slim, black, oblong 11½-inch wedge perched on a base, it allowed a gamer to use his or her body to throw virtual footballs or kick virtual opponents without a controller, but it was also seen as an important step forward in controlling technology with natural gestures.
In fact, as the company likes to note, the Kinect set “a Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling consumer device ever.” And at least some of the early adopters of the Kinect were not content just to play games with it. “Kinect hackers” were drawn to the fact that the object affordably synthesizes an arsenal of sophisticated components — notably, a fancy video camera, a “depth sensor” to capture visual data in three dimensions and a multiarray microphone capable of a similar trick with audio.
Combined with a powerful microchip and software, these capabilities could be put to uses unrelated to the Xbox. Like: enabling a small drone to “see” its surroundings and avoid obstacles; rigging up a 3-D scanner to create small reproductions of most any object (or person); directing the music of a computerized orchestra with conductorlike gestures; remotely controlling a robot to brush a cat’s fur. It has been used to make animation, to add striking visual effects to videos, to create an “interactive theme park” in South Korea and to control a P.C. by the movement of your hands (or, in a variation developed by some Japanese researchers, your tongue).
At the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, used his keynote presentation to announce that the company would release a version specifically meant for use outside the Xbox context and to indicate that the company would lay down formal rules permitting commercial uses for the device. A result has been a fresh wave of Kinect-centric experiments aimed squarely at the marketplace: helping Bloomingdale’s shoppers find the right size of clothing; enabling a “smart” shopping cart to scan Whole Foods customers’ purchases in real time; making you better at parallel parking.