Each holiday season, there’s a must-have product that sends consumers scrambling to buy it before the store shelves are bare. Years ago, that product was the Tickle Me Elmo doll, and more recently, the Nintendo Wii during its initial launch. These two products and every hot holiday item in-between have shared one commonality: They were all standalone products. This year is different, however. In 25 days, Microsoft has sold 2.5 million of its Kinect controller: a $150 accessory to an existing product.
We ordered a Kinect for our household right after the first devices shipped so we could see and read end-user reviews. I’m glad we placed the order when we did, because we’re having a blast with the Kinect. The device sits in front of our television and captures the motion of multiple people with a built-in infrared sensor. Kinect then translates that motion into game control and menu navigation, essentially turning you in the controller. An integrated camera and microphone are also used by Kinect for voice navigation and chatting online with Xbox Live friends.
So why is Kinect such a hot seller by capturing our imagination (and money) when Sony and Nintendo both have competing motion controls for their own systems?
Until Microsoft debuted its Kinect, earlier wireless, motion-capture products still required the use of a physical controller or device. Sony’s Move is held in the hand, as is Nintendo’s Wii Motion Plus, for example, and Nintendo’s small Wii Balance Board requires you to stand on it in order to use the board’s features. Kinect requires no controller to be held, stood upon or waved around. Without a controller, every part of you is in the game, not just your hands and fingers, which are generally the only things moving with a traditional game controller.
As a result, Kinect makes the experience immersive; sensor input, combined with software, provides full-body, 3-D, motion capture so as you move around, your video game character on the television follows suit. Your whole room is part of the game area, which of course brings the real world into play; trip over a piece of furniture and your video game character will fall down too. (I might be speaking from experience on that, but I’ll never publicly admit to it.) This immersion brings a social aspect as well. Which is more enjoyable for others to watch: You sitting in front of a screen moving your fingers and maybe your arms, or you jumping, dodging and ducking like this?
It’s the Future and It’s Affordable
Using Kinect for game control is only part of the allure; navigating around the Xbox menu system without a controller is more appealing than it sounds. Just like movies that show futuristic virtual interfaces, you can move your hand from left to right to swipe menu choices across your television screen with Kinect. Or you can speak to Kinect to make things happen. The camera in Kinect supports facial recognition too; once trained, the device can automatically sign users in to their Xbox Live accounts.
Essentially, this an entirely new way for everyday consumers to interact with an interface, and it shows the future of touch-less computing that doesn’t break the bank. I’m not suggesting that $150 is an impulse purchase for everyone, especially in a down economy, but if you had told me what Kinect could do a year ago, I would have guessed that Kinect would be beyond the reach of most consumers. Instead, you can drive over to the local Target and (if you’re lucky) find a Kinect on the shelves.
You Can Hack It!
I doubt many Kinect sales are from folks buying the Kinect to hack the device for their own use, but by pushing Kinect far beyond its “out of the box” capabilities, it proves that this combination of hardware and software from Microsoft has potential beyond traditional gaming. For example, yesterday, I saw Oliver Kreylos’ project that merges data from two Kinect units to create a full 3-D image. The calibration isn’t quite right, causing image degradation on some edges, but it’s impressive, nonetheless.
With the technology of two Kinects and proper software to merge images, I can imagine future video calls that allow for variable points of view, offering a more realistic and 3-D experience. Other hacks I’ve noticed are along the same lines of my future interface point above. Students at M.I.T. already have the unit working with a web browser, while other hacks use natural gestures with Windows 7 to expand or contract pictures much as we do today on multitouch displays.
Kinect has even expanded business opportunities. Evoluce, a gesture-control company based in Germany, jumped on the Kinect bandwagon by announcing its own software to bridge the Kinect with a Windows computer. You’d think Microsoft would be shutting down such hacks and third-party drivers, but instead, a company representative admitted to leaving Kinect’s USB interface open on the NPR Science Friday radio show.
Of course, there’s a fourth reason that Kinect is flying off the shelves: It’s downright fun to use! Aside from the games (there aren’t many just yet), I’m enjoying the two workout programs we purchased. I previously used Wii Fit for occasional exercise, but Nintendo’s product is like a basic exercise DVD while Kinect is akin to having an actual trainer in my house, measuring and critiquing my every move.
With Kinect, Microsoft has the potential to not only reinvent computer gaming today, but perhaps the computer interface of tomorrow. The possibilities are there, even if you hit your local store and Kinect isn’t.
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