For Microsoft, its Kinect hands-free games controller represents a chance to claim those casual gamers who made the Nintendo Wii such an enormous success-and increase the lifespan of its five-year-old Xbox 360 console.
For legions of tech pros, the Kinect's 3D camera-capable of tracking 48 points of movement on a user's body, and then translating those movements to a digital avatar-represents a chance to hack, experiment and perhaps create something really cool.
Those pros joined the million-plus customers who purchased Kinect following its Nov. 4 release. They studied the device, and then started modifying it. And videos soon began to appear on YouTube, demonstrating what that next-generation hardware could do aside from virtual fencing and dancing: painting 3D images in mid-air, say, or tethering Kinect's motion controls to an iRobot (creating the KinectBot).
At first, Microsoft did not approve. "Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products," a company spokesperson told CNET Nov. 4. "Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant."
However, before executives in Redmond unleashed the Dogs of War, or at least the Chihuahuas of Stern Cease-and-Desist Letters, they seemed to have second thoughts. In a Nov. 19 interview with NPR, Alex Kipman, Microsoft's director of incubation for Xbox, insisted that a.) Kinect had not been hacked, and b.) Microsoft had deliberately left the device open to modification.
"The first thing to talk about is that Kinect was not actually hacked," Kipman said on the program, according to a transcript provided by NPR. "Hacking would mean that someone got to our algorithms that sit on the side of the Xbox and was able to actually use them, which hasn't happened."
He added: "What has happened is someone wrote an open-source driver for PCs that essentially opens the USB connection, which we didn't protect by design, and reads the inputs from the sensor."
When asked whether Microsoft had left Kinect "open by design," Kipman responded: "Yeah. Correct."
Microsoft is apparently offering Kinect's technology to academic institutions, with an eye toward boosting the latter's research. The company likely intends to use advances in 3D sensing for products beyond gaming, as evidenced by its recent acquisition of Canesta, a maker of 3D-image sensor chips and camera modules that can be embedded into a variety of consumer products, including laptops and vehicle dashboards.
"There is little question that within the next decade we will see natural user interfaces become common for input across all devices," Jim Spare, president and CEO of Canesta, wrote in an Oct. 29 statement posted on the startup's Website. "With Microsoft's breadth of scope from enterprise to consumer products, market presence, and commitment to NUI, we are confident that our technology will see wide adoption across many applications that embody the full potential of the technology."
Microsoft has predicted it will sell 5 million Kinect units this quarter. If it incorporates 3D-sensing hardware into more devices, gaming could be the vanguard of a far larger gesture-control movement, with appropriately large profits. Given those stakes, it's probable that Microsoft is paying a good deal of attention to how IT pros modify and build on Kinect's technology.