Microsoft's future: Only Kinect
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.
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.