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Microsoft's future: Only Kinect

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:03 UK time, Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Seattle: It's the latest craze among video gamers, who use it to navigate the rapids in a virtual rubber dinghy or to dance along to Lady Gaga. But make no mistake, Xbox Kinect is a very serious business, vital to the future of Microsoft.

Microsoft Xbox Kinect

 

Just how important I've been finding out at an open day at Microsoft's headquarters at Redmond near Seattle, where technology journalists were given the rundown on where the software giant is focusing its massive research and development effort. I will be bringing back a couple of television reports about all of this to be broadcast next week, but let me sum up the message from Microsoft - only Kinect.

There was one news announcement during the day - the Kinect technology is to be opened up to outside developers. It has already grabbed the attention of hackers (not a word used by Microsoft) who have put videos on YouTube of their experiments. They range from a 3D video captured with the Kinect sensor, to a shadow puppet application, to an amazing hack which enables a user to become invisible.

Now the software development kit will make it far easier for outsiders to create new applications for what is turning out to be an extraordinary piece of kit. They will only be permitted to use it for their personal entertainment, with a commercial release coming later.

"We want to capture the enthusiasm that's been shown by the technical community," explained Craig Mundie, the man who has run Microsoft's research effort since the retirement of Bill Gates. "Sometimes we do the innovation, sometimes we're led to future innovations by seeing things that happen in the community. By releasing the SDK we are letting people stand on our shoulders."

He was speaking during a day which saw a series of demonstrations of projects by some of the 900 PhD-level researchers Microsoft has around the world. And here's the striking thing - just about every one of them involved taking the Kinect technology developed by those same researchers to the next level.

So we saw a screen which presents two different images to two viewers sat side by side. The Kinect camera tracked their eyes, presenting one object to one person, something completely different to the other. In future, then, you could sit in front of the television watching football, while someone else watching the same screen got a soap opera.

Two researchers from Microsoft's Cambridge laboratory walked around a group of us with the camera, producing a 3D representation of the reporters and the space in which we sat. This is something that could only be done by a $100,000 scanner before now - Microsoft wouldn't let us take pictures of this, being less than eager to see rivals copy this idea.

Then there was a demo where Kinect digitised an object put on a table in front of the viewer, delivering a 3D virtual version, which could then be manipulated by someone at the other end of a video conference. Got a new product you want to show customers thousands of miles away? If this idea does become a reality, then you could save on air travel.

For Craig Mundie, the whole day was about his belief that we are at a turning point in the history of computing, where we relinquish the mouse and the keyboard and begin to interact in a more natural way with devices that understand us better.

But for all this very impressive research into potentially life-changing technology, it's been the likes of Apple and Google, not Microsoft, which have brought innovation to consumers in the last decade. Having watched the iPad redefine computing and Android take over the mobile phone world, Mr Mundie and his team of boffins needed to prove that blue-sky thinking could deliver real-world hits.

That they have done with Kinect - as a games platform. Now they need some of those wider applications to catch on, and show that Microsoft is a company that can change the future, rather than living off its 20th Century inheritance.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    You were doing so well!! An article about Kinect - I was thinking there is no possible way this article can be turned into something about Apple and the iPhone / iPad!! Maybe next time?

  • Comment number 2.

    Nah, all BBC articles have to mention Apple. It's the law, or something.

    Maybe one day they'll do a feature on stuff the Ipad does that a similarly priced laptop can't.

  • Comment number 3.

    IMHO the bloggers at BBC have not yet been affected by the #Apple vs #Publishers arguments about subscription charges. This is probably because BBC web departments makes great products for iPad like the new iplayer App that I just love, and yet does not charge for the best app on iPad/iPhone world so they are still #applefanboys.

  • Comment number 4.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "There was one news announcement during the day - the Kinect technology is to be opened up to outside developers."

    this SDK is very good news indeed, who'd have thought that M$ would 'wake up and smell the coffee'? (btw, there was a time, not so long ago, when outside developers were known as third-party developers; not sure I like the term 'outsider')

  • Comment number 5.

    "Xbox Kinect is a very serious business, vital to the future of Microsoft."

    Why are tech blogs so obsessed with consumer level technology making or breaking companies?
    Microsoft has huge amounts invested across the entire technology spectrum. Servers, Databases, Office applications, Business Intelligence, Mobile, High performance computing and across every industry known to man (and woman!)

    Kinect will not make or break Microsoft

  • Comment number 6.

    Don't susposed they demo'd how the Kinect can be used in a room with less that 6 square foot of free space did they?

    Or give details of how the licencing works? Maybe 30% subcription fee for all commercial developers?

  • Comment number 7.

    Great article. Microsoft has been "opening up" everything like this for a few years now, at the same time as Apple has been becoming ever more closed.
    However the iPad has not "redefined computing" - thats a ridiculous thing to say. Its just a big iPhone. The iPhone (and Android) redefined phones. The kindle redefined Books. The iPad, and all tablets, are passing fads offering functionality that is a subset of any laptop. The other current fad is 3D.

  • Comment number 8.

    Crazy man crazy

  • Comment number 9.

    SQLMan #5.

    "Kinect will not make or break Microsoft"

    agree, still, it does present an even bigger shift in 'how we do' things than the iStuff(tm) did; just think through the real implications of: "The Kinect camera tracked their eyes, presenting one object to one person, something completely different to the other."

  • Comment number 10.

    Microsoft should get in bed with Amazon to offer a 3D look-before-you-buy on-line shopping experience to save all those dissapointments and returns.

    But seriously, only when this technology is paired with 3D holographic projection will we have reached that turning point you mention and the human/machine interface will literally be in thin air.

  • Comment number 11.


    "Having watched the iPad redefine computing ..."

    What?

  • Comment number 12.

    So Microsoft buy in technology, pass it off as an in house idea and everyone's happy.

  • Comment number 13.

    Must agree that the article started well, then went off into unrelated territory with some lame comment about innovation being limited to a few companies over the last decade, but only mentioning things that have happened over the last couple of years.
    Can't agree that the iPad has redefined computing - there are far more Kindles on the train to work than iPads, and far more laptops running Windows 7 for that matter.
    Android may be at the top for sales of smart phones, but feature phones still sell more than smart phones (by about 4 to 1) and Nokia are still #1 in feature phones so Android still has a way to go to take over the mobile phone world.
    Also, Microsoft has done its fair share of bringing innovation to consumers over the last decade - some are more obvious to consumers (e.g. Xbox Live), others aren't so obvious but are in no way less important (e.g. AJAX).
    So started well, but then became rather sloppy, almost Maggiesque.

  • Comment number 14.

    It is nice to see Microsoft opening up (this would not have happened if it was not hacked last year). I only hope Nintendo and Sony could be more open.

  • Comment number 15.

    This story wildly misinterprets the facts. As the BBC reported at the time, the Kinect was opened up to, and by, hackers the moment it was released. You can already write your own stuff for the Kinect, you can run it on whatever OS you prefer, and you can use it commercially if you so desire.

    This move from MS doesn't 'open' anything; it's a transparent spoiler tactic designed to lock would-be developers into Microsoft's own tools, and their attendant restrictions, rather than simply going their own way with the OpenKinect stuff.

    I honestly don't understand how Rory can write a post about opening up Kinect without so much as mentioning the existing efforts; he's does know about them, and he's not an idiot. Why settle for this PR churnalism when you know, and can do, better?

  • Comment number 16.

    @sagat4

    Microsoft have been open to developers in this way for many years now and is nothing new. Have a look at their developer site (msdn.microsoft.com)
    They provide development resources on everything Microsoft from BizTalk to xbox to Windows Mobile
    Kinect has only just been added to the developer fold because it's a new product.

    There seems to be some confusion as to what open and closed technology is. Open technology usually refers to tech like Linux where the source code is available to be customised and recompiled to fit your needs.

    Microsoft do not give away their source code and so are thought as closed but they do provide reasonably comprehensive API's (Application Protocol Interface) which allow developers to control the application (in this case Kinect) through a defined, tested and documented framework. The SDK provides the developer with the tools they need to reference that API in their own applications.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hmm. Let's try #15 again with different language.

    As sagat4 notes, the Kinect was opened up by independent hackers almost as soon as it was released, something that was reported on the BBC technology pages at the time. The OpenKinect project that grew from that effort is free software, without the field of use restrictions that come with the Microsoft SDK.

    It therefore seems misleading to report that Kinect has been 'opened up', when what has been released is actually less open than what already existed. It seems very odd for this latest blog post, and the equivalent report on the main site, to make no direct mention at all of the existing work (merely a passing reference to the "attention of hackers"), and instead apparently restrict themselves to reporting Microsoft's line, with no attempt to set it in the appropriate context.

  • Comment number 18.

    @ _Ewan_ #17

    Ok, let's put the propaganda away for a second :) It has been opened as MS are providing official documentation, support and tools for the product. It is encouraging you to do your own development and helping you as much as they can. As SQLMan has already said, this is nothing new for MS. MS excel in this kind of sharing and have done for over a decade (similarly related to Kinect, you can also write your own Xbox Live games using XNA).

    While a small hardcore managed to deconstruct and reverse-engineer Kinect (as these people always do) when it was released, it's a far cry from MS giving official tools and documentation to support you. If you fail to recognise this as a substantial change then I might think you simply have an anti-MS agenda.

  • Comment number 19.

    This is good news but people were going to do it anyway! At least they are making an attempt to look open and cuddly. Anyway it will be good to see what people do with it once they can publish stuff they have written in XNA.

    What I would like to see is a change that will allow people without eight square miles of space in their living room to use this device properly. My mate got one and even after we had moved all the furniture out of his room and put bin bags behind the curtains on all the windows, the bloomin thing still kept telling us to 'step into the light' or whatever it was. Ok, we were right on the cusp of the minimum distance, but it was ridiculous!

    Rory did I hear you say that iPad redefined computing? Eh? What? Please elaborate on this as I think you may be talking rubbish!

  • Comment number 20.

    This and other similar stories confirms what I have thought about Kinect ever since it was first announced as Project Natal. It is a very interesting piece of technology, but gaming is not the best application for it.

  • Comment number 21.

    Ok, regarding the Open/Close thing. As people have said they have NOT made this open source, they are providing an API for programmers to use to code their own Kinect Aps. This probably causes umbridge to the flag waving open source crowd, but at least it provides a legitimate path for programmers to produce output which in the future will be allowed onto Xbox Arcade.

    The Open Kinect project is Open Source and will allow the Kinect to be used on other platforms, but is unlikely to allow developers to develop for Xbox Arcade.

    Horses for courses really. Microsoft never release code to the open source community (and why should they) so this should be no surprise. At least it does allow developers (who wish to) to potentially develop Xbox Arcade solutions.

    It will also allow Microsoft to see what people do with the technology within a controlled environment (i.e what API's they provide) which is something they would not be able to achieve themselves.

    This is a good thing, there is no need for any negativity.

  • Comment number 22.

    Having got #15 back from the bin (thanks, moderation folks) I think it's appropriate to apologise somewhat for the tone; it's all very well complaining that Rory ought to be able to do better, but then so should I.

    However; I stand by the substantial point that simply repeating the Microsoft line that they are 'opening' Kinect without noting that it already was substantially open, and saying that people will "only be permitted to use it for their personal entertainment" without making it clear that there are perfectly good, perfectly legal alternatives with no such restrictions, is inadequate.

    Aidy's right that this is a significant move from MS, and it's worth reporting on, but it's worth doing properly. In other areas of the news we'd expect context and expertise as a matter of course. Take, as a recent example, this story on RBS' results:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12563720
    Within the first few words it tells us the result, tells us the results that went before, and compares them with another bank. Then it gets into background and analysis. Pretty much no story in the politics section would be complete without a quote along the lines of "...in response, critics/the opposition/a pressure group/other interested parties said that...". The days of reporters asking questions like "So, Minister, what would you like to tell the nation?" are rightly long gone.

    Technology stories shouldn't be a poor relation and consist simply of "So, tech company X, what would you like to tell the world?", but they often do. It's not good enough, especially when 'tech company X' is saying something self-serving that is very much not the whole truth.

  • Comment number 23.

    @_Ewan_

    Firstly this is a tech blog which should be expected to be slightly more informal than a regular news article.
    This is the proper kinect news article:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12531127

    Secondly your quote: "only be permitted to use it for their personal entertainment"
    Misses off the rest of the sentence which finishes:
    ", with a commercial release coming later."
    which debunks you're entire argument

  • Comment number 24.

    @SQLMan

    The main news article is hardly different and certainly no better. It still says that MS are opening Kinect up (it was open before), and arguably worse, goes on to say that MS "is hoping that an army of smarter developers will now find more ways to take Kinect to the next level". 'Smarter developers'? Smarter than the ones that reverse engineered the thing from scratch in a couple of days? That's just insulting. And misleading.

    ", with a commercial release coming later."
    "which debunks you're entire argument"

    No it doesn't. My argument is that the article and blog post were misleading, and they were. I'm not sure what you think my argument is, but there's no way that it could be debunked by MS' plans whatever they were.

  • Comment number 25.

    The writer is new to IT. Does not know that windows , office, networking , visual basic, sql server and so on control the IT industry and that Microsoft is the leader in this field. That windows smart phones have been around for years well before iphone or android phones. That tablet pcs running windows operating systems have been with us for nearly 10 years now. Microsoft has done everything. kinect is fantastic but Microsoft is not staking its future entirely on this device. How many banks, research institutions, schools, universities to name a few use Apple products or google products for their core tasks. what software developement tool does google or apple bring to the industry. To compare with say visual basic from miscrosoft. Name one .Apple is a 'cosmetic electronic company' period! - entertainment only. Most companies give windows phone to their employees. you can do something with it. excel, powerpoint, word and so on. the real inovator here is microsoft i am afraid.

  • Comment number 26.

    Microsoft are 10 times bigger than Apple in so many ways!!! there is no way they will only sell kinect.

 

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