This isn’t a review of the new Microsoft Kinect, the “controller free gaming and entertainment experience” that attaches to Microsoft’s Xbox. At least not exactly. I’ve only had a couple of hours to mess with it at a friend’s house, and during that time I had to fight off his three kids, who were already six hours into it and clearly addicted.
No, this isn’t a review but an estimation of Kinect’s impact, which it will have on many people and on the future of computing.
That’s a mighty big frame to put around a small bar-shaped box that costs $150. Besides Kinect is not the absolute first of its kind. The Nintendo Wii broke the first ground, in fact, built a giant edifice of popular success. The Wii not only did ‘computer games’ but it got people off their butts, out onto the floor, moving the Wii controller – and their bodies – like mad things. It took the idea of interactive computing to a whole new level.
Well, speaking of whole new levels, that’s where the Kinect comes in: It doesn’t just track where a controller is located, as the Wii does; there is no controller. It tracks your whole body, 48 different points on your body to be exact. It also tracks your face – it knows who you are. It can do this with two people, and that in itself is a whole new level. Believe me; the first encounters with this technology have the whiff of magic.
No smoke and mirrors though. Just sensory equipment. The Kinect uses 3 lens devices (video camera, distance sensor, infrared projector) and 4 microphones to locate where you are and track the position of your body, read your gestures, and hear your vocal commands. The hocus focus behind the sensing devices is the real magic. It’s a great piece of hardware adaptation that belies many long days (months, years) of experimentation and refinement. It also has a great piece of software writing to coordinate the whole shebang. (The software does have the usual quota of quirks.) It’s also a testament, a milestone really, to how far computers have come in little more than two decades.
A lot of things Kinect does (remember it’s just a small $150 box) were mere dreams not long ago. Many of the effects Kinect routinely uses could barely have been done with a supercomputer in 1990. Processor speeds, RAM capacity, graphics chips, and all the software needed to take advantage of the hardware didn’t come easy, though you won’t know that to use it. When you turn on the Kinect and start learning with Dance Central, you can immediately feel the rush of a superbly new and powerful medium. Using your whole body – and having the computer image react to your whole body – that’s something quite new. The possibilities for future ‘whole body involvement’ games and simulations boggles the creative mind.
At the same time it’s easy to see that there room for improvement, in the sense that you can never get enough computing power. The graphics, while better than adequate, are still cartoonish – a little rough. The images don’t always keep up with your movement. Sometimes moves and gestures are misinterpreted. But…and this is a big one…the sense that there is room for improvement doesn’t kill the experience. Kinect gets you up and moving and doing things with ‘games’ and ‘simulations’ that suck you right in. Like I said with the kids, it can be a little addicting, although even with kids the energy can run out before the routine sets in.
Many years down the road, say a decade or so, the Kinect will no doubt be seen as an important bridging device. It represents the transition from passive and limited motion computer interaction, to the ever more realistic presentation of virtual reality environments. Some people believe this is the future of computing, or at least of the user interface. In something like the world of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report people will interact with computers standing, moving, talking, and gesturing – not just sitting down and typing.
That world is coming, though full-interaction computing may or may not become the dominant user interface. How many employers want their employees wandering around gesticulating and talking to computers?. The impact of devices like the Wii and Kinect are not so much about the movement, but in the way they bring about an almost seamless integration of human expression with the capacity of computers. Further down this road and people will begin to forget that they’re working with a computer. It will truly become an extension of themselves.