Demons, Demos and Dolls: Kinect for Windows Moves Into The Real World

Developers are beginning to take Microsoft's Kinect sensor out of the living room, using it to create everything from animatronic demons to "green screened" PowerPoint demonstrations. 

While gamers can play dozens of games for the Xbox console using Kinect, there's been a slower adoption of Kinect for Windows, the $220 derivative that's still considered a development product. The sensor still ships with a warning that it should only be used with an application developed with Microsoft's Kinect for Windows Commercial SDK. 

Instead, for Kinect for Windows has been showcased more as a research tool, with everything from a fun app that turns people into virtual objects, to a recent update that allows "clicking," panning, and scanning. Outside the home, Microsoft's vision is to use Kinect as the "eyes" of wall-sized displays, tapping into its ability to potentially recognize faces and track movements as a new form of natural interaction.

However, other developers have their own ideas about what Kinect for Windows should be used for.

Personify

Every night on the evening news, a meteorologist stands in front of a green-screened weather map and tells her audience what to expect the next day. Personify takes that technology into the conference room.

What Personify does, according to the company's chief executive, is combine the best of the worlds of videoconferencing and presentation software like PowerPoint. Using Personify, a presenter stands in front of his notebook PC, scrolling through his presentation through the use of gestures. But Personify wasn't designed for in-room presentations; instead, the software displays the presenter's slides to the customer over the Internet, superimposing the image of the presenter on top of the slides. 

"We absolutely need Kinect to do this," Sanjay Patel, the chief executive and co-founder, said in an interview. Kinect's camera strips out the background - whether it be a desk, a wall, or a coffee shop - without the need for a "green screen".

Personify Live, the company's Web service, costs $20 per month, Patel said. Customers can also buy a bundled, Kinect-like Asus Xtion Pro Live for $200, including three months of service. The software will also be compatible with an upcoming depth camera from Logitech, which Intel has promoted as one of the future directions of the PC.

Next up? Consumer apps, so users could conceivably dance in front of a picture - or video - of their favorite scene or pop star, Patel said.

Distortions Unlimited

Each year, the "haunt" industry tries to outdo itself around Halloween, with the goriest, scariest, psychologically disturbing "attractions" possible, from aliens to zombies and everything in between. Distortions Unlimited decided, with a bit of prompting from Microsoft employee Todd Van Nurden's two sons, to design a spook that actually reacted to the viewer.

The demon waits - for blood! (Image Source: Distortions Unlimited via Microsoft) The demon waits - for blood! (Image Source: Distortions Unlimited via Microsoft)

Of course, anyone could reproduce that same effect by dressing up in a bloody shirt and a chainsaw. Developing a lifelike fourteen-feet high demon master, as well as a pair of smaller hellhounds, was a different story. Distortions Unlimited embedded a Kinect for Windows sensor connected to a ruggedized Lenovo M92 workstation to the demon's belt that could track viewers and send commands to the hellhounds via wired Ethernet.

The hounds whimper when they see children but growl when they see adults, using the Kinect camera to detect height. Up close, Kinect's skeletal tracking was used for more fine-grained interaction.

"The Kinect technology the potential to be one of the tremendous leaps for industry," said Ed Edmunds, president of Distortions Unlimited, in an episode of Making Monsters, a Travel Channel show about the haunt industry. (Unfortunately, the clip doesn't show you the final project, but does give you a bit of an idea how it all works.)

Mattel's Barbie Dream Closet

If you visit a Bloomingdale's store in New York, you might have a chance to try out Swivel, which scans your body using a Kinect and allows you to "try on" clothes. Swivel also launched a version at the recent National Retail Federation trade show to show off a close-up technology that allows users to "model" sunglasses and makeup.

A similar technology was developed by Gun Communications and Adapptor, which developed, "Barbie the Dream Closet," a promotion which toured Australia during the summer of 2012.

A screenshot of a Barbie Dream Closet promotional video. (Source: YouTube) A screenshot of a Barbie Dream Closet promotional video. (Source: YouTube)

A Microsoft case study of the Dream Closet describes it as a "larger-than-life hot pink, sparkly closet with an augmented reality 'mirror' that contains virtual outfits from the past five decades." Using gesture-based controls, children could browse through the closet and select outfits. Kinect for Windows determined the position and orientation of the user, and the application rescales Barbie’s clothes for a custom "fit". Assuming that the child was over a minimum age, the Dream Closet allowed them to take a picture and post it to Facebook. And if Mom wanted to participate, the software allowed for that, too.

Interestingly, Kinect's not alone in this space. Me-Ality, which sells sizing stations that look like the full-body scanners used in airports, also claims it can offer virtual sizing.

There's no guarantee that shoppers will feel comfortable scanning themselves with Kinect, or projecting themselves in the middle of their PowerPoint presentation. What is true, however, is that machine vision such as what Kinect provides is a foundation for a new wave of innovations that would have been unheard of a few years ago.