One year after release, Microsoft moves Kinect toward business and science

Brian Crecente

While conceived as a device meant to expand the reach
of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming platform by allowing people to play
video games without the need for controllers, the Kinect has always been
destined for a broader future.

Last November,
when the Kinect array of microphones, sensors and cameras was on the
cusp of hitting the game console, I chatted with the folks behind the
technology about that future. Inspired by their unusual technology and
motivated to sell it to the world, they aimed for great things.

its surface the Kinect is much like the Wii and Playstation 3 Move,
allowing gamers to play with natural motions, but the tech behind
Microsoft’s device is very different. Where the other two devices track
movement of a physical controller, Kinect tracks a body in motion. Then
it uses algorithms to build a virtual skeletal system of the player.
This visual tracking is augmented by microphones and software that can
pinpoint where people are standing and track their movement, carefully
picking out what they say and interpreting it.

relatively inexpensive technology was destined for cellphones,
computers, cars, the military, health care and academics, I was told at
the time.

The first small steps toward that future are now beginning to come true.

this year, Microsoft opened up the device and its development software
to hobbyists and academics, supporting a surprisingly eclectic use of
the Kinect. The results included applications for healthcare, education
and art.

Now Microsoft is unveiling the next step
in the expanded use of Kinect technology, a commercial program that will
open the hardware and software to developers for use in businesses.
More than 200 businesses and 20 brands worldwide have already joined the
pilot program, which officially launches early next year. Among the
companies already signed up are Toyota, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and

“We’ve had a skunk-works team working
with some of these partners for awhile,” said David Dennis, group
program manager of Microsoft’s Xbox team. “Today we’re lifting the veil
of secrecy off of that program.”

The pilot program
had Microsoft prototyping new concepts with businesses. The end result
will be programs that use the familiar Kinect array in retail stores,
auto dealerships, banks and other public locations.

said companies will be able to purchase the Kinect in bulk from
Microsoft and that the only difference between the Kinect they will be
using and the one used with an Xbox 360 is that the commercial ones
won’t have the Xbox 360 logo on them. They’ll just say Kinect.

did acknowledge that while the Kinect being sold as part of this
program is the same as the retail Kinect, the retail Kinect has changed
slightly since its launch as some of the parts have been tweaked to
“wring costs savings” out of the device in mass production.

The expectation is that the device could be sold to large companies in the “tens of thousands,” Dennis said.

said that Kinect could be seen as a device that could give a business
an edge over competitors, so many pilot program businesses don’t want to
talk about their plans until they’re ready to roll it out. A lot of
announcements are expected at next year’s Consumer Electronics Show, he
said. Toyota declined to discuss its intentions with the device.

marketing firm Razorfish has plans around the technology that seem to
center on making it easier for potential customers to interact with
displays, or tracking their use of marketing kiosks.

are pretty excited about the commercial program around Kinect,” said
Jonathan Hull, vice president of emerging technology at Razorfish. “We
do a lot of custom digital experiences for our clients. We’re looking at
Kinect to be one of the pillars. We are really happy to see official
support for commercial applications with our clients.”

said they’re already looking at creating kiosks that would allow people
to have their bodies scanned and then try on digital clothes and
accessories in real time. The live feed from Kinect would allow
customers to see themselves wearing and moving in the clothing and
accessories. It would also allow for very precise measurements, which
could be stored and used from home to order clothing that customers
could be sure would fit.

In other applications, as
with banks or other kiosks, the Kinect would simply be the way
customers would interact with the information presented on a screen. So,
for instance, a person could just wave his or her hand at the screen to
turn pages or scroll through information.

is so important with this,” Hull said. “The fact you don’t have a
controller, don’t have to physically touch something is important.”

Delta Airline kiosk recently installed at New York’s Madison Square
Garden uses the Kinect to track what a person is doing to gauge how
people are using the information and reacting to it.

this next step in Kinect tech usage is very heavily market driven, it
opens the door for getting the hardware into a lot of locations quickly.

declined to talk about future steps for spreading Kinect technology to
other sectors, but this fits in with the plan Microsoft talked to me
about a year ago.

The next steps would likely
include taking that technology out of the familiar Kinect array and
putting it into things like cars, phones and other consumer electronics.


Crecente is managing editor of, a video-game website owned
by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at


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