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What's Microsoft Going To Do with a Repurposed Kinect?
Microsoft announced at Build that it was resurrecting its defunct gaming device for distinctly non-gaming purposes. Here's a look at a few possibilities.
One of the more interesting announcements from Microsoft's Build conference earlier this month was that Microsoft is bringing back its ill-fated Kinect sensor.
This time, however, Kinect won't be marketed as an Xbox gaming controller, but rather as an edge computing device.
In some ways, Microsoft's decision is not entirely surprising. Kinect technology provides HoloLens with its spatial mapping capabilities. Similar capabilities also exist in Microsoft's mixed reality headsets.
It is also impossible to ignore the fact that even though Kinect failed to fundamentally change the world of console gaming, the device has been used for countless non-gaming purposes. I have heard stories, for instance, of Kinect being used in medical facilities as a way of allowing doctors to review digital medical charts without having to touch anything. Kinect has also been used for 3-D modeling.
Right now, Microsoft seems to be envisioning a world in which devices containing embedded Kinect sensors will be able to perform spatial mapping, and then send the mapping data to applications running either locally or within Azure. In some ways, Microsoft is already doing this. Windows 10 contains a feature called Windows Hello that allows you to log in to the operating system by using facial recognition instead of a password. In order to prevent Windows Hello from being fooled by someone holding a photograph of someone else up to the camera, the software uses a 3-D camera to spatially map the face of the person who is logging in. Such a camera is integrated into Microsoft's Surface Book 2 device.
So clearly, Microsoft has already been using Kinect technology for things other than gaming.
So if Microsoft's idea is to make a next-generation Kinect sensor available to be embedded in edge computing devices, then the next logical question is, how can we expect these sensors to be used?
I don't have a crystal ball that will let me see the future, nor do I have any inside information about how Microsoft or anyone else is planning on using the Kinect sensor. Even so, there are plenty of clues as to what we might expect.
So far, much of the talk about Kinect sensors has revolved around industrial automation. Kinect sensors could, for instance, allow factory robots to see the items that they are assembling. Although there are already various techniques for giving vision to robots, the way that the Kinect sensor performs spatial mapping could potentially make it easier for industrial automation engineers to design systems that perform quality-control checks in real time.
I think that there is also potential to use the Kinect sensor in retail applications. While I was preparing to write this column, I did a quick Web search on retail uses for Kinect. I actually found a YouTube video dating back to the year 2013, in which Kinect was being put to work in a clothing store.
This video shows a woman in a clothing store trying on outfits virtually. In the video, the store provides a large video display that is set up to function as a mirror. By using speech and gesture controls, the woman in the video is able to select various outfits and see in the "mirror" what it would look like if she were wearing the outfit.
Such an application probably wasn't all that practical back in 2013, but today the technology to do something like this definitely exists. More importantly, I think that the video gives us a glimpse of what we might expect from Kinect.
Right now, the most compelling use of Kinect sensors is arguably that of augmented-reality experiences, such as those delivered through HoloLens. The problem with HoloLens is, of course, that it is expensive and that it has to be worn in order to be used. The Kinect for Windows Retail Clothing Scenario video, however, illustrates a HoloLens-like augmented reality experience that does not require the participant to wear a headset. My guess is that while there will be industrial uses for Kinect, we can probably also expect to see Kinect used in more consumer-centric experiences like the one shown in the video.
But what about entertainment? Even though Kinect never really took off as an Xbox controller, I think that the new Kinect sensor has potential for other forms of entertainment. I expect to see the sensors used in everything from driving range simulators to casino gaming.
In any case, I believe that the potential of the new Kinect sensors is huge.
Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.