E3 2010: Microsoft Kinect: The Future of Computing?

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Yesterday, Microsoft took the wraps off of Kinect, their motion-sensing accessory designed for use with the Xbox360 gaming console. Steve Ballmer calls it “the most important product” Microsoft will release this year. We call it the future.

In the most recent generation of gaming consoles, everyone was counting Nintendo all but out. In comparison to the PS2, the Gamecube offered lackluster success and when the Wii came out, with its silly name, underpowered hardware and crazy new motion controls, people scoffed.

Clearly, this was the wrong attitude.

Nintendo’s Wii has become a raging worldwide success thanks largely to its novel motion control scheme. Tech enthusiasts, like gamers or longtime computer users, often think that playing games and using a computer is easy.  For people like them – and us – we don’t think that moving a person on screen requires you to hit a button, then another button to pick up an object, then another button to move it over here, then another button to set it back down.

Instead, it’s second nature – you move the character, pick up an object, move over here and set it back down. That layer of abstraction – the translation of interacting with hardware in order to interact with the screen – is what prevents average folks from picking up a keyboard or Xbox controller. Ask someone over fifty whether or not they play video games and, apart from a quick game of Bejeweled here and there, the answer is no.  The reason?

“It’s too complicated.”

It’s too complicated.  And it really is.  Already, some of you are probably thinking, “Using a computer isn’t that hard.”  That puts you, however, into a fairly advanced category of computer user.  Think instead of trying to get your grandmother to use a computer.  Or your Xbox.  That ease of use is why the Wii was heralded as bringing a new kind of user – more casual, less advanced. It led to the creation of new kinds of games: Just Dance, Wii Fit and others, just to name a few.

It’s also led to an amazing amount of innovation in the market: Sony has come out with the Playstation Move, Microsoft has come out with the Kinect (currently Xbox360 only) and even Asus and Lenovo have come out with their own crude motion-sensing peripherals for use with Microsoft Windows-based computers.  The demand is clearly there.

Microsoft has created something truly innovative with Kinect. It’s not the first motion control scheme that uses a camera and nothing else to convey motion – Sony had the Playstation Eye, for example – but it’s the first one that really honest-to-god works.  We’ll have more footage later in the day, but suffice it to say, this is the future of interacting with technology.

All it takes is a little extrapolation.  Right now, Microsoft is pushing Kinect as part of its Xbox360 division, which is a smart choice.  Gaming is a big business – just look at E3 – and leveraging the Xbox360 platform almost forces the development of creative software titles that really showcase just what Kinect can do.  Let’s look further into the future. Touchscreen computers and phones were available long before Apple ever got into the game, but when they did, it changed technology in a fundamental manner.  Now everyone and their brother is jumping to put touch capabilities – often very, very good ones – into their products. Computers, cell phones, TVs, printers, refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, you name it. 

Imagine Kinect taking off.  It requires no controller to pick up.  You can just jump in and move, and the system records and interacts. Games will popularize it, but Microsoft won’t limit its use to the Xbox – within a year we’ll see them start pushing it in a business setting. You can give a presentation and with a flick of your wrist move onto the next PowerPoint slide. Instead of using a laser pointer, you might just point, and an outline of your hand appears on the screen to emphasize a point. Taking it a step further, maybe you’ll be able to walk into your kitchen and turn on the lights with a wave of your hand.  Or open the curtains. Or turn down the air conditioning. The possibilities for altering the way in which we interact with our environment are endless.

This style of interface is often referred to as the Minority Report UI, coined by the movie of the same name that showed off one designer’s vision of what the near future of user interface development might herald. Kinect is all about that “hands free” aspect.  In addition to the way it analyzes and records body movement, the system also integrates voice recognition (such as telling the Xbox to pause a movie while you make popcorn), which is a first for a popular piece of consumer electronics.

Regardless of how favorable this all seems, Kinect isn’t perfect.  There are usability issues to be ironed out, and despite the fact that it harbors the potential for fascinating new directions for using electronics (just imaging this built into every notebook and monitor that offer integrated microphones and webcams), it’s still an experiment. Microsoft really seems to have looked further into the future than any of its competitors in developing the Kinect, but sometimes a good idea comes too soon, and only time will tell how the public receives it.

Apple has shown that despite the market, good hardware is only as good as the software that drives it. If Microsoft and its partners can create the right experiences, the people will come. Is Kinect, with its “interaction at a distance” philosophy, the future of technology as we know it? Maybe. Is it exciting? Definitely.

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