A PC that you control by moving your hands in the air. That vision of a Minority Report-like future took a step closer this week as Microsoft announced it will release a noncommercial software development kit (SDK) for its Kinect controller.
On Monday, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant announced that the Windows SDK for Kinect will be released in the spring as a free download. A commercial version is also expected to be released at some point. The Kinect, originally released for Microsoft's Xbox 360 video-game console, allows users to interact via free-form gestures and movement.
Virtual Puppets, Invisibility, Robot Surgery
On The Official Microsoft Blog, the company's Steve Clayton wrote Monday that the noncommercial SDK will "give academic researchers and enthusiasts access to key pieces of the Kinect system," including audio technology, system application-programming interfaces, and direct control of the Kinect sensor.
Clayton noted in particular the possible use of Kinect technology in health and medicine. He pointed to research by a team at the University of Washington's Biorobotics Lab, which is exploring the use of Kinect with the commercially available PHANTOM Omni Haptic Device in order to add a sense of feel to robotic surgery.
Shortly after Kinect was released in November, developers eagerly began hacking the device and creating alternative uses. Applications have included virtual puppets, an app that allows the user to become invisible to the screen, and virtual light sabers.
At a Microsoft-sponsored conference of company researchers and invited media Monday in Seattle, Microsoft showed off some of its internal experiments. These include eye tracking for separate users, so each user could interact with a separate image -- on the same screen. One experiment turned the environment shown into 3D in real time, while another enabled an object on the screen to become 3D, which could then be manipulated in virtual space by users on the other end of a video call.
When developers started hacking the Kinect after its release, Microsoft initially wasn't pleased. At first, the company issued a statement that it "does not condone the modification of its products." But later, it recognized that the developers were pointing to a huge additional market for the revolutionary device, and the company agreed that developers were only modifying the driver and other software that communicates with the hardware.
Meanwhile, Kinect sales have topped eight million.
Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester, called Microsoft's new emphasis on Kinect "super exciting." In the past year, she's seen "multiple PC OEM's" demo an approximation of what Kinect can do. But these demos, she said, were fairly rough compared to Kinect, and the "big missing piece" was the software that takes advantage of what Microsoft is calling the natural user interface.
Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for consumer technology at the NPD Group, said it isn't clear if Kinect-like natural user interaction will ever become "commonplace" on PC's, but there could be a "wide array of applications that utilize its advantages, just like touch interaction."
"Kinect is a 'wow' technology," Epps said, "and to bring that 'wow' to the PC is exactly what Microsoft needs to do."