Kinect: Coming soon to the corporate world?

Forget the old cash cows -- Ballmer knows Microsoft has to get business-oriented Kinect apps out before Apple or Google can one-up his technology

If you think the Kinect is just a great game-playing device, you're not thinking outside the box.

Officially, as of this moment, the $150-or-less sensor remains tethered to the Xbox 360. Unofficially, a sufficiently talented and motivated individual can hook a Kinect to just about anything that pumps electrons. With open source drivers and hook-up kits, an avid fan base, and a throng of chortling developers in tow, the Kinect is too good to stay in Xbox land. I'm convinced it'll make big corporate inroads in the next year. Here's why:

The Kinect has a depth-sensitive camera, a three-axis accelerometer, four microphones, and a motor pack that can make the sensor unit move up and down. The camera produces two video data streams, one a standard low-definition color stream and the other a data stream that describes depth by bouncing infrared beams across the room. All of the data travels up and down a single, simple USB cable.

As Neil McAllister describes in his Developer World blog, electronic enthusiast company Adafruit Industries sponsored a driver competition last November. Less than a week later, Hector Martin claimed the prize with a full open source set of drivers that combines the color stream with the depth stream, and produces amazing 3D tracking images, including the ability to create wire frame skeletal mapping.

At first, Microsoft started making grumbling noises about protecting its patents. Then somebody in Redmond hid the stupid pills. By the time CES rolled around two weeks ago, Steve Ballmer stated unequivocally that Kinect will tie in with Windows at some point: "We'll support that in a formal way." Which is just as well because the, er, informal support is starting to look like the fans at a Jets game -- and act like them, too.

"We certainly started out with Xbox, very focused on gaming," SteveB said to the BBC. "We're trying to do two major things. We're trying to move beyond gaming and include the world of socialization, TV, movies, music. And we're trying to make the whole experience accessible to everybody in the family, not just the traditional gamer."

And, golly, the idea of putting Kinects out in the corporate world just never really dawned on him, you know?

Steve knows full well that he's sitting on a gold mine of moneymaking applications. And they won't just make money for Microsoft. They'll make money for his corporate customers, too.

Advertising and data gathering apps come at the front of the list, of course. In many cases, the Kinect can already tell when Dad's sitting in front of the TV; some day soon it may be able to correlate Dad's presence with what he's watching on the TV. It can tell when Mom and little Billy are playing a pre-schooler's game or listening to Baby Einstein. With a Kinect, the Nielsen ratings can finally measure who's in the room watching the tube and when. That's a Real Big Deal.

But there's much more. Industry observer Long Zheng was at the North American International Auto Show this week. He describes the way Ford used a Kinect in its booth to draw attendees' attention by displaying a picture of visitors on a screen. "[T]hey used a Kinect instead of a normal webcam... because the photo they take of a person has the background substituted for a waterfall -- easily possible with Kinect's depth sensors and people-identifying algorithms. The picture is then turned into a puzzle for users to solve."

Of course, Ford was using, ahem, official Microsoft drivers, wasn't it?

Microsoft has promised to tie the Kinect into Microsoft Lync, so people can use their Xbox for video chats and conferences using the Lync software. The only thing odd about the arrangement is the Xbox. I expect it'll be knocked out of the loop in short order.

It's all about developers, developers, developers. Right now, with absolutely no effort on its part, Microsoft has acquired legions of developers -- avid, true believer developers -- willing to pony up the $150 price of admission. Not all of them are game players.

Microsoft's in a race right now, and Steve knows it. He has to get business-oriented Kinect apps out in short order, before an Apple or Google (or Nokia or whomever) can one-up his technology. Microsoft bought Canesta in November to stockpile patents covering "natural interface" technologies. Expect lots of activity, and almost no public statements, in the short term.

Innovation is coming at a hot and heavy pace, with lots of activity at universities. There are robots controlled by Kinect. A piano-playing app, where you can play on your desk or with your feet (move over, Tom Hanks). And lots of games, of course.

The company that invented the original Kinect technology, PrimeSense, has announced that it's working with Asus to create a PC-compatible peripheral that's remarkably similar to the Kinect.

The game is afoot.

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