Microsoft Kinect for Windows

As Kinect moves out of the living room, just how many aspects of our daily lives can the technology revolutionise? Stuart Andrews finds out

Microsoft Kinect is the most exciting home-entertainment technology in years. Nintendo’s Wii made motion control mainstream, but Kinect took it to the next level, transforming simple body movements into game controls using a combination of 2D and 3D cameras, and some very smart software. With speech recognition as well, it’s the first natural user interface to control media playback and core console functions in the home.

What Kinect did for the Xbox 360, it’s now threatening to do for the PC

This is just the beginning. What Kinect did for the Xbox 360, it’s now threatening to do for the PC. In January, encouraged by a wave of DIY Kinect coders, Microsoft announced the Kinect for Windows program.

With a modified sensor aimed at developers, the goal is to take Kinect out of the living room and into shops, workshops, offices and just about anywhere else. In Microsoft’s vision, Kinect is one of several key technologies that can transform how we use the PC, both with Windows 8 and whatever follows.

Kinect, meet Windows

Microsoft may have been taken aback at the speed with which the hacking community embraced Kinect, but it claims that bringing Kinect to the PC was always part of the plan.

“Microsoft made a very significant investment both in terms of time and money in bringing this hardware and software device into existence,” says Peter Zatloukal, product manager of Kinect for Windows. “Of course, our initial focus was on the gaming sector – we thought that’s where we could really prove the technology and get a sense of how people would like it. But our plan all along was to bring this particular technology platform into all the places that Microsoft operating systems and software technologies exist.”

Microsoft Kinect for Windows

Hence Kinect for Windows and the Kinect SDK. The Windows sensor looks just like the Xbox 360 version, even requiring the same weird USB and PSU arrangement. The cameras, the lenses and the four-element array microphone are, we’re told, identical.

However, the Kinect for Windows sensor has a different firmware that enables it to operate in what Microsoft calls “Near Mode”. Kinect was originally designed to work in the living room, at a range of roughly three to four metres. Near Mode enables it to see objects as close as 50cm – or 40cm with some performance degradation. Wouter Bos, project manager at Dutch developer Qurius, claims this makes Kinect for Windows “more precise than the game Kinect”.

This becomes even more interesting when you realise what the latest versions of the SDK enable. Kinect now supports a seated mode, tracking the upper body while overlooking the lower half. Skeletal tracking works at 40cm, and is faster and more accurate than before. It supports facial tracking – watching facial features and head position in real time – while speech recognition now copes with a wider range of languages and regional accents. Work on hand tracking continues, both inside and outside Microsoft.

The company says it’s the combination of hardware and software that makes Kinect so powerful. As Zatloukal puts it, the strength is in how it enables our computers to see and hear what we do or say. “Even though the hardware platform is interesting,” he says, “the magic is really in the software. The more places we can bring this ability for our computers to see and hear us, the more interesting and relevant to our lives I think the software will become.”

Wouter Bos agrees. “Normally, Windows is for an environment where you have your desk, your computer or your laptop and the chair you’re sitting on, and that’s that. With Kinect you’re free. You can use it in a shop, or when you’re performing surgery… you can be anywhere and interact with Windows.”

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