Hacking the future

Who would have thought that what is ostensibly a toy for the family room could become such a potentially useful asset elsewhere?

Microsoft's Kinect, initially designed purely as an add-on for its Xbox 360 games console, is fast becoming a platform for a variety of software developers' ‘hacks’. Now, the company is publishing a Software Development Kit for academics to use the device in their research–and it promises to revitalise everything from robotics through to advanced computer interface design.

One of the most active research groups has been at MIT, where scientists at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have been experimenting with the device's stereo camera system to create a gesture control system which bears a startling resemblance to the high-tech interface used by Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report.

Another MIT student connected the device to a household vacuum cleaning robot, giving the otherwise blind device the power to recognise people and follow gesture commands. Garrett Gallagher, the MIT researcher responsible for the gesture-based Kinect interface, hopes to use it as the basis for more robotic research.

We like the innovation that we're seeing with Kinect, because it shows how much creativity exists in the tech community–especially when a company like Microsoft drops a $150 image-sensing camera onto the market. 

So far, hackers have used the hardware with their own software to achieve some surprising results. Some have created Kinect applications for air guitar and piano. There are also interactive puppet shows. Others have taken a more serious approach, developing unmanned automating vehicles by attaching it to a helicopter with four blades. The more commercially minded have experimented with retail kiosk applications controllable using the Kinect.

Microsoft announced plans for a non-commercial SDK for the hardware, which will be released this spring. The idea is to make it simpler for academic and enthusiastic developers to create interfaces using the system. “The SDK will give users access to the Kinect system information such as audio, system application programming interfaces, and direct control of the Kinect sensor," Microsoft Research has said.

It is edifying to see a company such as Microsoft clue into its secondary success with the Kinect (which has already sold up to eight million units to consumer gamers). What as-yet unrecognised potential will hobbyist and academic researchers discover all the system in the commercial sector, as the hardware takes on a whole other life of its own?

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.