Freaks, Geeks and Microsoft: How Kinect Spawned a Commercial Ecosystem
June 8, 2012
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.
An object that spawns its own commercial ecosystem is a thing to take seriously. Think of what Apple’s app store did for the iPhone, or for that matter how software continuously expanded the possibilities of the personal computer. Patent-watching sites report that in recent months, Sony, Apple and Google have all registered plans for gesture-control technologies like the Kinect. But there is disagreement about exactly how the Kinect evolved into an object with such potential. Did Microsoft intentionally create a versatile platform analogous to the app store? Or did outsider tech-artists and hobbyists take what the company thought of as a gaming device and redefine its potential?
This clash of theories illustrates a larger debate about the nature of innovation in the 21st century, and the even larger question of who, exactly, decides what any given object is really for. Does progress flow from a corporate entity’s offering a whiz-bang breakthrough embraced by the masses? Or does techno-thing success now depend on the company’s acquiescing to the crowd’s input? Which vision of an object’s meaning wins? The Kinect does not neatly conform to either theory. But in this instance, maybe it’s not about whose vision wins; maybe it’s about the contest.
Theodore Watson bought a Kinect as soon as the gadget was available. He soon acquired 15 more. He admits to a “slight addiction” to the game Call of Duty, but he does not use any of his Kinects to play games. Watson is an artist and a designer who lives in Brooklyn, and his work uses closed-circuit security cameras, graphics cards and gaming hardware “tweaked,” he notes, “for our purposes.”
To use a Kinect with a computer instead of an Xbox, Watson needed a “driver” (basically a bit of software) that did not exist. He joined a small, far-flung, highly dedicated and technically sophisticated community effort dubbed OpenKinect, which sprang up immediately after the Kinect was introduced, to write the code that would make this possible. At the same time, Adafruit, a hobbyist-focused electronics company based in New York, offered $1,000 to the first person or group to write the necessary code in an open-source format.
At the time — this was shortly before the 2010 holiday season — Microsoft’s primary Kinect focus was the mainstream game-playing market. Its first response to OpenKinect seemed predictable: CNET reported an unnamed spokesperson declaring that the company “does not condone the modification of its products” and would “work closely with law enforcement . . . to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.” Adafruit increased its prize, ultimately to $3,000. Within days a developer in Spain posted videos demonstrating that he made his Kinect work with a P.C. OpenKinect refined and spread the open-source driver code, and a variety of “Kinect hacks,” as they came to be called, proliferated in YouTube videos. (An early example involved a Kinect used to create a version of the hand-swipe control contraption Tom Cruise used in “Minority Report.”) Soon Watson and his wife, Emily Gobeille, posted their own video, in which her hand movements were captured by a Kinect and translated onto a screen displaying a computer-generated bird figure, which she controlled like a high-tech puppet.
Watson told me this by phone from Amsterdam, where he and Gobeille had just presented a polished version of their creation as an installation at CineKid, an international entertainment festival, for an audience that included Dutch royalty. The specter of a Microsoft-backed “law enforcement” response to projects like his had obviously faded. In fact, shortly after the open-source driver was finished, one of Microsoft’s top Kinect people appeared on NPR’s “Science Friday” and, in remarks that were widely reproduced across the Web, asserted that OpenKinect participants would “absolutely not” be prosecuted…