The Xbox Kinect is Microsoft’s big push into motion-controlled gaming. You don’t even need a controller to play. Just move your hands and feet with gestures that the Kinect understands, and — voilà! — you’re kicking footballs, competing in dance challenges, and shooting down bad guys.
But now, one year since its launch, the Kinect has gone way beyond video games. It could change our retail buying experiences, and reinvent the way we shop.
A commercial version of the Kinect software development kit will be made available in early 2012, Microsoft announced on Monday, opening the door for businesses to create new applications for the popular platform.
“With the Kinect for Windows commercial program, Microsoft hopes that visionaries all over the globe will continue to transform the way we do things with new Kinect-enabled tools,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Wired.com in a statement. Microsoft is currently running a pilot program with more than 200 businesses across more than 20 countries, including partners like Toyota, textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and digital advertising agency Razorfish.
If all goes as planned, we could see Kinect-based interactions show up at retailers, banks, automotive dealers and other commercial environments. Razorfish, for example, is looking at building kiosks in which customers’ bodies would be scanned in order to try on digital outfits without needing to take off any clothes — so said Razorfish VP of emerging tech Jonathan Hull in an interview with Kotaku. Other applications could include simpler tasks, such as waving one’s hands to navigate an ATM’s menu screens.
Microsoft previously released a non-commercial version of its Kinect SDK in June, encouraging hackers and open software enthusiasts to create off-beat, innovative applications that take advantage of the platform’s motion-sensing capabilities. From gimmicky motion controls for banking software to NSF grant-backed medical research, the non-commercial SDK spurred creative uses of the platform beyond what Microsoft expected.
Kinect first debuted in November of 2010 to much fanfare. The system eschews the traditional button-and-joystick controller scheme, and instead lets users navigate and play games via hands-free motion capture. The system was an instant hit, setting a Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling consumer device ever in the first few days after its release. In March, Microsoft announced it had sold more than 10 million Kinect devices.
Though the hands-free controller has been a fun novelty for gaming enthusiasts, the Kinect’s utility for hardware-modding enthusiasts has been more compelling. The Xbox peripheral is packed with a bevy of sophisticated motion-capturing instruments, including an infrared light emitter to capture the surfaces of items in a room, and a depth camera that builds a 3D model of all the objects captured by infrared.
The Kinect’s relatively low $150 price tag has been even more attractive for budding DIY-ers. Willow Garage — the Silicon Valley robotics outfit known for its robot control operating system — now offers a $500 open-source robotics kit that incorporates the Kinect. The company’s previous version (also pre-Kinect) cost $280,000.
The initial forays into Kinect modification began with the homebrew modding community, spurring a wave of creative software hacks that ranged from Street Fighter games to the intricacies of “boob physics.” (Yes, really.)
Instead of taking action against the hackers or trying to bar hardware nerds from further Kinect mods, Microsoft encouraged development, promising to eventually release SDKs to new segments of would-be Kinect hackers. “Kinect represents the first incarnation of the next big thing in computing — a world where computing is becoming more natural and intuitive,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Bloomberg Businessweek in a statement.
Kinect’s natural progression is to move into the commercial realm. Much like app developers for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, the release of the commercial SDK allows third parties to use Microsoft’s technology in bolstering their own brands and services. Partners, however, would use Microsoft’s hardware to augment their own businesses — this rather than providing content to a centralized store. In return, Microsoft would open itself up to untold numbers of potential new hardware purchasing partners.
David Dennis, group program manager of Microsoft’s Xbox team, told Kotaku that Kinect devices could be sold in bulk numbers — the “tens of thousands” — to partner businesses.
Microsoft hasn’t released any hard details on the commercial SDK’s release date beyond “early next year.” So don’t expect to start waving on digital fashion accessories right away.