Microsoft (MSFT) may have downgraded the Kinect 2 to an optional accessory for the Xbox One in a cost-cutting move, but that doesn’t mean the advanced motion detection peripheral is a bust.
While it might not make sense as mandatory console accessory — it made the Xbox One the most expensive of next-gen consoles, and not all games actually took advantage of its capabilities — Kinect technology has a growing number of real-world applications. That’s why there is considerable excitement over the upcoming release of the Microsoft Kinect 2 as a peripheral for Windows PCs.
The original Kinect motion sensor was first released as an add-on for the Xbox 360.
While there was initial buzz from game developers, it turned out that the Kinect wasn’t really suited to the kind of games most people bought an Xbox 360 to play. First-person shooters like Electronic Arts’ (EA) Call of Duty require precision control, zero lag and plenty of buttons and joysticks for cycling through weapons and targeting enemies. Lacking that precision, Kinect games gravitated toward kid-friendly exploration titles or dance games.
In addition, the initial promise of the Microsoft Kinect was somewhat tempered by the reality of its technical limitations. It was impressive, but relatively low-resolution cameras with a limited field of view and poor performance in low-light situations were a reality check.
Despite the somewhat cool reception from the Xbox crowd, the Kinect became a hit with PC developers when Microsoft released the device for Windows in 2012. The Windows version was not compatible with the Xbox version (despite using identical hardware), but it came with a software development kit, a $249 price tag and even a $100 academic pricing discount. PC developers quickly found a range of applications where Kinect could be used as a futuristic, hands-free controller.
Microsoft has a web page showcasing some of the applications developers found for that original Kinect sensor. Medical and healthcare uses have been especially promising. For example, the Microsoft Kinect has been adapted for use in the operating room, allowing surgeons to manipulate CAT scan and X-Ray images projected onto a large display without having to physically touch printed copies. Microsoft says the Kinect is also being used for retail and educational applications.
Well, the market for hands-free PC control has continued to expand, and competitors have arrived.
Products like the Leap Motion Controller (reviewed here) have begun to filter into the PC mainstream —Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) even sells a laptop with integrated Leap technology. Microsoft’s PC partner Intel (INTC) also offers a Kinect competitor for computers in its Perceptual Computing/RealSense initiative, complete with its own motion-tracking camera.
The Kinect 2 is a huge improvement over that original Kinect device, and PC developers are eager to take advantage of the new hardware.
Among the improvements the Microsoft Kinect 2 for PC offers are 1080p HD cameras for much more visual detail and better facial tracking, an expanded field of view, the ability to track six people simultaneously (compared to the two the original Kinect could manage), support for more detailed human gestures and motions (25 joints per person versus 20), enhanced voice recognition, Active IR sensors that eliminate lighting as a performance factor, and reduced latency — so gestures are almost immediately translated into commands.
When that first Microsoft Kinect was released for PCs in early 2012, Windows was still a mouse-driven operating system. Now, however, Windows 8.1 has been built around finger gestures. This offers the potential for convergence, where the gestures Windows users learn for their PCs, tablets and smartphones could translate into motion control using a Kinect 2.
The Verge’s Tom Warren points out that Microsoft is already taking steps toward this convergence by incorporating touchless gesture recognition inspired by the Kinect on future Nokia smartphones.
This time around, developers will be able to market their applications through the Windows Store, making distribution much easier. And with the promise of the Xbox One Unity engine, the door is open for Kinect 2 applications developed for the PC to potentially find their way to the Xbox One.
Motion tracking, gesture recognition and hands-free PC operation may be the future of computing, and if this turns out to be true, the Kinect and now the upcoming Kinect 2 for Windows are helping Microsoft to take a leadership position. Even if that vision doesn’t pan out, the Kinect is helping to keep the PC, Windows and Microsoft on the radar when it comes to specialized applications like advanced medical technology.
Apple (AAPL) made a big move late last year in its acquisition of Prime Sense (a 3D sensor company that helped design the original Kinect), suggesting that the company takes hands-free control seriously. It has yet to reveal any products that make use of motion sensing technology, but that may just be a matter of time. With the head start Microsoft had with the Kinect for PC and now the Kinect 2 about to be released for Windows developers, Apple will face an uphill battle if it has any intentions of catching up.
The Kinect 2 for Windows is now available as a $199 pre-order.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.