Kinect for Xbox 360. Image courtesy Microsoft/Xbox press kit.
I recently had the opportunity to put Microsoft’s Kinect to the test. While the device may prove to be a financial success (it seems well on its way), my takeaway was all about sense, not dollars.
For the first time in my adult life, I played a video game with one of my parents and we both enjoyed the experience. The parent in question was able to interact with the set-top box without navigating a dozen different buttons on complicated controllers. Some of my younger relatives took to the interface like otters learning to swim.
Kinect, at this stage, isn’t perfect. As the Wall Street Journal and Engadget noted in reviews, a controller is still needed to access certain menus or functions, and accuracy-focused tasks that involve manipulating objects don’t work all that well.
Glitches aside, after using Kinect it’s clear to me that the device’s full potential isn’t bound only to games. What caught and held my attention was the device’s gestural user interface, or what Microsoft research scientist Craig Mundie more specifically described to Computerworld as Kinect’s “natural user interface.”
Joe Sinicki summarized Kinect’s broader influence in his review: “The main draw of Kinect is not what it does now, but what developers may be able to do with it in the future.” Given OpenKinect, a set of open source drivers that unlocks the device’s potential, the developer opportunities are considerable.
With that as a backdrop, here are a few ways Kinect could leap beyond its gaming applications.
1. Health and medicine
Chris Niehaus, director of U.S. public sector innovation at Microsoft, blogged at length about Kinect applications in telemedicine, neurological processes, physical therapy and medical training. While Niehaus has a strong motive to highlight the best of Kinect, his post explores the concept well.
R.O.G.E.R. shows how Kinect can be applied to post-stroke patients. For a sense of how motion gaming has already made an impact in this direction, recall the stories about veterans undergoing “Wii-hab” last year, or the cybertherapy pilots underway at various militaries.
2. Special needs children and adults
Look no further than the story of Kinect and John Yan’s four-year-old autistic son for a real-world example of how a different interface can literally open up new worlds. Research into computerized gaming and autism already reveals the potential for mirroring applications to improve facial recognition. Kinect hacks might take this further.
This one has no technical angle at all. It may be a bit too hopeful to think Kinect, Wii, and PlayStation’s Move will get overweight children moving. But given the rates of childhood obesity, moving kids from sedentary to active would be a clear win for everything but the living room furniture. That benefit might even extend to parents and seniors.
Educational technology has grown in recent years through electronic publishing, learning management systems, and new models for virtual degrees earned online. Will Kinect’s video and interface allow for distributed teaching? That’s admittedly speculative, but education is an area to watch.
5. Participatory art
This interactive, Kinect-based puppet prototype is just the beginning. As the Kinect platform matures, groups of people dancing in public and private spaces could explore new art forms that blend virtual and physical spaces. Flash mobs could get a lot more distributed.
6. Advertising and e-commerce
The Kinect can already detect multiple people in field. The Xbox 360 already enables users to watch live and recorded sports on ESPN. As more intelligence is built into the platform, combining those two capacities could go far beyond changing channels. It could lead to recognizing different users, profiles and creating a more interactive watching experience. Early integration with Twitter and Facebook are a start, but they don’t lend themselves to fully socializing the experience. Neither does Microsoft’s Live community, though it’s not hard to imagine that feature evolving into a full-fledged social network.
7. Navigating the web / exploring digital spaces
If you’ve seen “Minority Report” or watched video of Oblong Industry’s spatial operating system, you’re already familiar with the concept of gestural interfaces. Kinect could be an initial step toward making that concept a reality. In fact, a team from MIT’s Media Lab has already developed a Kinect hack that allows for gesture-driven web surfing: