How Hackers Made Kinect a Game Changer

Machines that respond to your touch, motion or voice are making keyboards obsolete. Is your TV remote next?

Did Kinect hackers inspire a new breakthrough in technology?
Did Kinect hackers inspire a new breakthrough in technology? Image courtesy of Flickr user Atsushi Takoro

Remember that scene in Minority Report when Tom Cruise manipulates 3-D images in mid-air simply by moving his hands. It’s a moment when you forget the plot, the setting, the sci-fi theme and you just sit there and think, “That is soooo cool.”

Flash forward to last fall when Microsoft rolled out its Kinect motion-sensing devices for the Xbox 360. At the time you didn’t hear many people say “This changes everything.”  It was mainly seen as Microsoft’s answer to Nintendo, a Wii without the wand that allowed people to play games simply by moving their bodies.

That’s clearly what Microsoft had in mind and it no doubt was supremely tickled when Kinect became the fastest-selling consumer tech product of all time—10 million sold in just four months.  But within weeks of its debut, Kinect began morphing into something much bigger.  First, hackers started using it to give robots 3-D vision. Then other tinkerers took it in more  directions—from creating interactive shadow puppets to adapting it so surgeons in operating rooms could manipulate CT scans by just waving their hands. Sound familiar?

At first Microsoft did the lawyer thing, threatening to “work closely with law enforcement groups” to keep people from tampering with its Kinect.  But savvier heads prevailed. Over the past year, it’s done a full 180 on this, first launching a website celebrating what it’s dubbed “The Kinect Effect,” then a month ago releasing  a very slick ad showing just how much Kinect has caught the wind. Just two weeks ago, Microsoft announced “Kinect Accelerator,” a program designed to help developers and startups create original products using the Kinect.

And then, earlier this week, word leaked out that the next version of Kinect will be able to read your lips and facial expressions and gauge how you’re feeling by the tone of your voice.

Yet as impressive as all of this sounds, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “I don’t play video games, don’t own a robot, am not a surgeon and have never dabbled in shadow puppets, so what’s Kinect got to do with me?”

I’ll answer with another question: You’ve used a TV remote, right?

That’s where this is headed, to your living room.  No one wants to use a keyboard to control what’s on their TV.  A remote’s bad enough. And touching the screen isn’t very practical.  But being able to change channels by waving your hand, or calling out a number or even blinking your eyes, well, I’d say we have a winner.

Tell me what you want

The other hot item in the realm of human-machine bonding is Siri, the “personal assistant” that lives inside the iPhone 4S.  With its high-end voice recognition software, it carries out your spoken requests.  Need to send a text to a friend?  Tell Siri. Out-of-town and looking for Mexican food?  Ask Siri for recommendations.  Wondering if you’ll need an umbrella tomorrow?  Siri will be your weathergirl.

This, undoubtedly, is the future of search, but as with Kinect, hackers are broadening Siri’s horizons. One has figured out how to use the software to order his car to start.  Another has jerryrigged it so he can tell his thermostat to turn down, his lights to turn off and yes, his TV to turn on.

Here’s more from the world of human-machine relationships:

  • There’s something in the air: From Russia comes a technology that one-ups Kinect.  It’s called DisplAir and uses an infrared camera, a projector and cold fog to produce 3-D images in thin air that can be controlled with hand movements.
  • Please don’t type on my face: Keyboards may be on their way out, but virtual keyboards that can be reflected on almost any surface, and actually work, are coming soon.
  • Ah, the touch of cardboard: Researchers in Germany have come up with a way to make clothing, furniture, even cardboard, work like the touch screen of an iPhone.
  • You’re so cute when you write with your finger: A Finnish company has developed technology that turns walls into group screen-touching experiences. Already it’s being used in bars in Japan and Hong Kong.
  • It’s not just a guy thing: Rebecca Rosen, associate editor at The Atlantic weighs in on why so many helper devices, such as Siri and GPS, have women’s voices.

Video Bonus: Can’t get enough of the Kinect hacks?  Here are a dozen more.

The Question: What would you like to see a body-motion technology like Kinect be able to do?

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