The few bits of genuine news in Microsoft’s CES keynote on Monday all concerned Kinect, the company’s natural user interface sensor. CEO Steve Ballmer announced that 18 million devices had been sold since launch, either as standalone units or bundled with Xbox 360. A smattering of Xbox content deals with Fox and others, using Kinect as a selling point.
And finally, Kinect for Windows: a brand-new software development kit, developer program and PC-optimized hardware device launching February 1, designed to decisively push Kinect beyond gaming and media, precisely when companies like Samsung are charging behind the Xbox with gesture recognition for TV sets.
Shining a light on Kinect and pairing it with Windows shows that even with PC sales slumping, Microsoft’s future is bigger than the PC, at least as it’s been narrowly construed. It also shows that Microsoft is working towards integration of its far-flung products at a level higher than a common set of orthogonal Metro tiles. And with Kinect and Windows Phone 7 drawing raves, Microsoft’s on the verge of regaining a reputation for innovation, not just domination.
But make no mistake: this was almost entirely an accident. The push to bring the Kinect to the PC and create a developer community for the device came almost entirely outside and in spite of Microsoft. And by wrapping its arms around Kinect development, Microsoft isn’t simply embracing it or even asserting its ownership; it’s also breaking that development community into pieces.
How Kinect for Windows Works
Unveiling a new Kinect device specifically for Windows was a surprise. Developers have already been working with an official Microsoft beta SDK for Xbox Kinect units for non-commercial use on Windows machines since June, and unofficially using community-developed open-source drivers long before that.
The new Kinect for Windows devices cost more: $250 against the $100-150 retail for the current Xbox Kinect devices. Kinect for Windows general manager Craig Eisler says that the cost difference is mostly because on Xbox, Kinect is “subsidized by consumers buying a number of Kinect games, subscribing to Xbox LIVE, and making other transactions associated with the Xbox 360 ecosystem.” Hence the bump — although later this year, Microsoft says they will make Kinect for Windows available to students, educators, schools, libraries and museums for $150, the same price as Kinect for Xbox.
Besides just reading “KINECT” in lieu of “XBOX 360,” Kinect for Windows devices also have different firmware and other features from their Xbox cousins. While Kinect for Xbox was designed to recognize whole bodies from across a room, Kinect for Windows has something called “Near Mode,” allowing its camera “to see objects as close as 50 centimeters in front of the device without losing accuracy or precision, with graceful degradation down to 40 centimeters,” according to Microsoft.
The idea is that commercial developers — big companies you know, like Google, Adobe, Electronic Arts, Autodesk, as well as more obscure companies developing specialized applications for medicine or education — will build applications using voice or gesture recognition specifically for the desktop PC, portable laptops and tablets, or other Windows implementations besides the living room. Used in those contexts, near-range sensitivity matters much more than recognition at a distance.
Kinect then becomes a general-purpose NUI (natural user interface) interface for the PC, where “PC” is broadly construed for the post-Wintel era. Windows 8?s Metro interface is already optimized for touchscreens and touchpads; Kinect turbocharges Windows’ voice capture and adds full-motion gesture and facial recognition to the mix. (The only thing it’s missing — so far — is the ability to track eye movements.)
The Kinect for Windows unit also offers a modified USB connector and better protection against noise and interference. Both tweaks are designed to better incorporate the Kinect hardware to the PC environment — even if the basic hardware looks identical to the original.
At its limit, you could imagine Kinect sensors in other form factors: some designed for portable use, like a handheld souped-up Wiimote, others integrated into all-in-one PCs the way that webcams are now. Microsoft had nothing like this to announce, but SuperSite for Windows blogger Paul Thurrott wondered about it out loud during his keynote livechat with ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley.
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