Why Kinect Is Microsoft's 'iPhone'

Now that the Kinect interface has been on the market for two months, it's clear that Microsoft has really hit one out of the park.
Posted January 6, 2011

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

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Microsoft has shipped eight million Kinect for Xbox 360 devices in two months, according to CEO Steve Ballmer speaking in his keynote address yesterday at CES 2011.

That's the number shipped to retailers, not customers. Still, Microsoft exceeded by some unknown number the 5 million units they expected to sell to actual users. The early sales success of Kinect only hints at the monster hit they have on their hands as the capabilities and potential of the Kinect platform become clear.

Kinect is quickly turning into Microsoft's "iPhone" -- the small product that could grow into a monster, change the world and transform the fortunes and direction of the company that makes it.

The Apple iPhone was theoretically a mobile telephone. Instead, it turned out to be so much more: An interface revolution, a new application paradigm and platform and Apple's probably successful attempt to invent the future. The iPhone interface drove sales of the iPad, and will probably show up on future desktop computers.

Kinect is supposed to be just an input device to a gaming system. Instead, Kinect just might become another interface revolution, a new application platform and Microsoft's probably successful attempt to invent the future. The Kinect interface will probably become part of the PC interface of the future.

Kinect appears superficially to be nothing more than a Wii-like motion capture system. But it's way more than that.

It's a system that combines motion and gestures with voice recognition, face recognition and "environment," or a computer-generated space -- games, video, virtual worlds. It does all this in a very inexpensive, very accurate way that brings a long list of science-fiction like applications to the masses.

More important, it uses real cameras to capture motion, rather than laser, infra-red or other systems that don't enable photo and video applications.

Out of the box, Kinect realizes a "technology of the future" from our childhoods: The George Jetson video phone. Microsoft's Video Kinect app enables people to have video calls with family and friends. Of course, other video chat systems have existed for years. But Kinect is the first giant-screen system that's deployed already in millions of homes. While nobody was paying attention, giant-screen, Jetson-like video calls have gone mainstream.

Kinect also has the potential to usher in other "technologies of the future," including the gesture interface from "Minority Report," deeply immersive virtual reality a la "The Matrix," or "Star Trek," and other technologies that we're familiar with from science fiction.

The Future of Kinect

Ballmer introduced at CES something called Avatar Kinect, a virtual chat environment where your body movements, voice, hand gestures and even facial expressions are captured and applied to a cartoon version of you. Let's say three friends want to chat. They each launched the Avatar Kinect application, which shows all their avatars in a virtual environment on their TVs. Then, they just have a conversation. As they do so, their avatars interact with all movements and expressions on the TV.

Avatar Kinect appears to be a vastly superior version of the avatar-based chat idea that Google tried and failed with when it launched, then cancelled, Google Lively. With Lively, avatars were disconnected from users.

But with Avatar Kinect, the avatars mimic everything the user actually does. It's also got hooks into Facebook, apparently enabling chat sessions to take place inside the social network.

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Tags: Microsoft, iPhone, interface, 3D, Kinect

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