Unveiling a new Kinect device specifically for Windows was a surprise. Developers have already been working with an official Microsoft beta SDK for Xbox Kinect units for noncommercial use on Windows machines since June, and unofficially using community-developed open-source drivers long before that.
The new Kinect for Windows devices cost more: $250 against the $100-150 retail for the current Xbox Kinect devices. Kinect for Windows general manager Craig Eisler says that the cost difference is mostly because on Xbox, Kinect is “subsidized by consumers buying a number of Kinect games, subscribing to Xbox Live, and making other transactions associated with the Xbox 360 ecosystem.” Hence the bump—although later this year, Microsoft says it will make Kinect for Windows available to students, educators, schools, libraries and museums for $150, the same price as Kinect for Xbox.
Besides just reading “KINECT” in lieu of “XBOX 360,” Kinect for Windows devices also have different firmware and other features from their Xbox cousins. While Kinect for Xbox was designed to recognize whole bodies from across a room, Kinect for Windows has something called “Near Mode,” allowing its camera “to see objects as close as 50 centimeters in front of the device without losing accuracy or precision, with graceful degradation down to 40 centimeters,” according to Microsoft.
The idea is that commercial developers—big companies you know, like Google, Adobe, Electronic Arts, Autodesk, as well as more obscure companies developing specialized applications for medicine or education—will build applications using voice or gesture recognition specifically for the desktop PC, portable laptops and tablets, or other Windows implementations besides the living room. Used in those contexts, near-range sensitivity matters much more than recognition at a distance.
Kinect then becomes a general-purpose NUI (natural user interface) interface for the PC, where “PC” is broadly construed for the post-Wintel era. Windows 8′s Metro interface is already optimized for touchscreens and touchpads; Kinect turbocharges Windows’ voice capture and adds full-motion gesture and facial recognition to the mix. (The only thing it’s missing—so far—is the ability to track eye movements.)
The Kinect for Windows unit also offers a modified USB connector and better protection against noise and interference. Both tweaks are designed to better incorporate the Kinect hardware to the PC environment—even if the basic hardware looks identical to the original.
At its limit, you could imagine Kinect sensors in other form factors: some designed for portable use, like a handheld souped-up Wiimote, others integrated into all-in-one PCs the way that webcams are now. Microsoft had nothing like this to announce, but SuperSite for Windows blogger Paul Thurrott wondered about it out loud during his keynote livechat with ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley.
Microsoft’s been talking about expanding the use of natural user interfaces in computing for years, even delivering innovative products like the giant multitouch-powered Surface and incorporating better touch and speech recognition into plain-vanilla Windows. Besides Kinect, though, it’s mostly been an R&D-driven future-of-computing hobby.
Even the phrase “natural user interface” still clings clumsily to Steve Ballmer’s tongue. He can’t communicate enthusiasm for the possibilities of NUIs like Bill Gates is able to—astonishing, considering that Ballmer can fire himself up into an almost-awkwardly over-the-top giddiness about almost anything else that Microsoft does.
Ballmer never thought he’d be in this position—not only porting a gaming peripheral to his beloved Windows machines, or even opening it up for commercial development by other software companies, but owning it, taking control of it, and positioning it as a key component in the future of the company.
Considering that a little over a year ago, Microsoft was threatening to sue and/or prosecute anyone who wanted to develop for Kinect on a PC, it’s a remarkable turnaround.
It’s also remarkable that a company that became a giant by selling its software to consumers and hardware partners is now effectively giving its software away for free—and making its money back by selling its own branded hardware.
The commercial development kit and licenses Microsoft has put together to build Kinect for Windows doesn’t follow the Open Kinect model. Instead, it offers something much more controlled. Developers can’t use open drivers or the cheaper Xbox Kinect for commercial projects. Plus, as the moniker “Kinect for Windows” suggests, they’re required to use it on machines running Windows 7 or 8. Finally, even noncommercial projects—still officially permitted on the Xbox Kinect devices—aren’t licensed to use software other than Microsoft’s official commercial SDK to write code for the Kinect for Windows hardware.
“They were smart to adopt what we were doing and turn it into a business for themselves,” Torrone said of Microsoft. They built the Kinect Accelerator to seed projects. They featured ones they liked on their website, rebranded the widespread adoption of the device “The Kinect Effect.”
“It got away from them for a moment, but they adapted themselves to it and took a leadership position. They had to.”