Open-source hackers are creating an entire ecosystem with Microsoft's Kinect, ushering in a new era of gesture-controlled inventions.
Hackers have transformed the $150 Xbox add-on into a platform for everything from artificial vision aids and nanosatellites to self-propelled grocery carts. With Microsoft's help, their efforts may significantly advance medical and entertainment technology, suggesting public innovation can yield big rewards.
Hackers, too, gravitated towards the device and found the gaming system impressive. They formed groups like OpenKinect to take full advantage of its 3-D depth sensor, multiarray microphone and advanced video camera.
Microsoft, known for its stringent copyright protection, initially balked at OpenKinect's efforts, vowing to "work closely with law enforcement to keep Kinect tamper-resistant."
But after hackers successfully connected the device to PCs, used it to create flying robots and invented "Minority Report"-like swipe controllers, the company realized it no longer completely controlled the platform.
Accordingly, the Redmond, Wash.-based company released a non-commercial software developer kit, though some hackers argue Microsoft did so to claim credit for the open source "Kinect Effect." Microsoft has indeed profited from hackers' efforts, which inspired the company to sell commercial development licenses for businesses wishing to tweak Kinect.
The result of both Microsoft's openness and hackers' ingenuity is a flourishing of inventions and innovations that use gesture control to create features that cover the gamut between practical to wildly imaginative.
For example, graduate students at Germany's Universit�t Konstanz tinkered with the Kinect platform to help blind people navigate using artificial vision. Michael Zollner and Stephen Huber combined a Kinect camera with a vibrotactile waist belt to create a motion-sensing response system that warns of nearby obstacles.
The University of Washington's Kinect Mirror acts as a non-invasive body scanner to help doctors view patients' bones and internal organs, a discovery that may one day negate the need for traditional X-rays.
And researchers at the Minnestota's Institute of Child Development are leveraging the Kinect platform to diagnose autism through motion sensors.
In addition to contributing to medical breakthroughs, Kinect is also enabling hackers and researchers to make unprecedented strides in entertainment technology.
University of Surrey researchers were able to create mini satellites capable of docking together like LEGOs once in space, a development that may save millions in rocket fuel and assembly costs.
YouTube videos show Kinect enthusiasts are developing self-controlled shopping carts to follow patrons around stores, an especially useful invention for mothers with children or people who use wheelchairs.
Hackers are also altering video games like Super Mario Brothers and Guitar Hero to produce new, gesture-controlled versions. And one open source dabbler even covered himself with the Kinect-powered illusion of transparent camouflage.
The significance of these open source inventions is not lost on Microsoft, which is doing its best to encourage and capitalize on the open source trend.
Last June, the company hosted Code Camp for those interested in a 24-hour Kinect hackathon. It also partnered with TechStars to build the Kinect Accelerator, which promises to fund future ventures.
And, at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced the company will release a $250 Kinect version for commercial enterprises.
So far, Ballmer's company has teamed up with 350 Kinect partners including businesses like American Express and Toyota along with many hospitals. Planned creations include home security systems, shopping aids and even online banking enhancement.
Microsoft's effort may face competition from Apple, Google and Sony, all of whom have registered patents for technology similar to Kinect's. The threat of services like Siri, Apple's voice recognition software, may also give the Redmond-based company a hard time going forward.
But Microsoft has the advantage of owning the first and most prominent device the motion-sensor market, suggesting the Kinect ecosystem may expand unchallenged for some time.
As it moves to capitalize on the "Kinect Effect," however, Microsoft should keep the movement's open source origins in mind. If it fails to do so, the company may discourage new inventions and ultimately hurt its business in the process.