Xbox Kinect: Microsoft's Key To The Living Room?

It's official. Long after the XBox 360 is relegated to scrap heaps and Gamestop bargain bins, the Microsoft Kinect – the XBox peripheral that lets you control the action with body movements alone – will be going strong.

A Mediocre Game Controller

To tell the truth, the Kinect is a pretty ho-hum video game controller. It works with a fairly weak selection of game, given how long  it's been on the market, largely because blockbuster games generally require the kind of pinpoint control you can get only from a joystick or control pad. Microsoft may be working on games that take better advantage of the Kinect hardware, but that's not the point. 

The point is that the Kinect is a cheap, open, powerful piece of hardware with a life beyond video games. It's been hacked in a number of ways since its inception, and with October's launch of Kinect for Windows, Microsoft is fulfilling the promise of its SDK and throwing the company's weight behind the effort in a big way.

Microsoft Moving Beyond The Xbox

Microsoft's emphasis on the Kinect makes sense. The XbBox has been wildly successful within the high-end game market, but that covers only a fraction of total households. To earn the company's SmartGlass system a spot in non-gamer living rooms, Microsoft needs a central piece of hardware, and an open Kinect gives it an in that Apple and Google can't currently match. On the back-end, Microsoft is positioning the Kinect as a boon to revenue-hungry content providers, but on the demand side, it's hoping the market will take care of things on its own.

So far, the market has responded. Projects like OpenKinect have spawned dozens of interesting uses of the original Kinect sensor, including virtual touchscreens and three-dimensional image tracking that works in the dark. It probably won't be long before the Ouya has its own Kinect hack. With the addition of official support and upgraded hardware, Kinect for Windows should encourage those developers to productize their work, and attract a lot more interest from commercial developers. The $200 device provides a standard platform with a high-quality camera, skeletal tracking, face and voice recognition, and a wealth of development tools and support. Its camera alone is probably worth the cost. 

Kinect-ing With Physical Therapy

Late in 2012, the Department of Defense expressed some interest in using the Kinect for therapy. The DoD found the Kinect particularly interesting for the ongoing treatment of remote patients, or those who wanted to maintain anonymity while undergoing care. The economics of the system make sense (the costs of just a few patient transports could easily pay for a Kinect and PC), and Microsoft is pursuing the deal aggressively.

Medicine is a big market for the Kinect. Tokyo Women's Medical University is currently using Kinects as part of its Opect project (see video here), which lets surgeons access information in a hands-free, Minority Report style that doesn't contaminate their hands.

While medical uses make better PR than an automatic Nerf gun turret, they still doesn't get the Kinect into the average living room.

For that, we'll need an entirely new killer app. If Microsoft gets really lucky, that app might come from crowdsourcing. But the more likely source is a certain television manufacturer with a dislike for Apple and Sony. 

See more Kinect coverage on ReadWrite.