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Kinect: Microsoft's accidental success story

What happens when Microsoft applies a Google-like model to an Apple-like gadget? We're going to find out.

June 18, 2011 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft introduced a peripheral device for gaming in November called Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360. The product turned out to be a brain-dead simple-to-use, innovative and completely new user interface. It became the fastest-selling consumer electronics product in history, and has now sold more than 10 million units.

Kinect's reception has been more akin to an Apple product like the iPod, iPhone or iPad than a Microsoft one. Usually Microsoft has to spend hundreds of millions of marketing dollars just to become a second-tier player. Think of Bing, or Windows Phone 7. But not the Kinect. It just took off. Everyone loves it. The Kinect is Microsoft's iPad -- the hot consumer appliance with no significant competition.

Then something really unusual happened. Kinect became the hottest platform in the industry for bold new inventions. Scientists, hobbyists and inventors started "hacking" the Kinect to build crazy new contraptions, all without Microsoft's knowledge or permission.

Microsoft is used to battling pirates, counterfeiters, hackers and users who want to use without paying. So it was even more surprising when the company embraced and encouraged the movement. Microsoft's approach to Kinect reminds me of Google's approach to Android. In both cases, the companies have no idea where others will take the platform and take a hands-off approach to the direction of innovation.

Microsoft officially sanctioned such "hacks" this week by releasing a software developers kit (SDK) for Kinect. What's unusual about the release is that Microsoft says it's "a free beta release for noncommercial applications." In other words, it's for hobbyists, tinkerers, hackers, scientists and inventors, rather than industry partners, software developers and OEMs. The company plans to release a commercial version later, which can be used for third-party applications that will be sold to the public.

Microsoft's SDK is very exciting for one major reason: People have already done mind-blowing things with Kinect even without the SDK. Kinect has been hacked to make serious breakthroughs in technology for marketing, medicine, business, computer science, entertainment and robotics.

Marketing

A Russian company called ARDoor has created an in-store "mirror" called the AR Door Kinect Fitting Room that superimposes clothes on shoppers. They can quickly cycle through different outfits to see how they'll look.

Medicine

An academic researcher at the Technical University of Munich created something he calls the "Magic Mirror." Designed for teaching anatomy, the system creates the illusion of a mirror that shows the user's insides through a "hole" in the body.

Business

A graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created a 3D video conferencing system using four Kinect devices. The system uses head tracking to simulate reality. For example, with a conventional videoconferencing system, the other user is just flat on the screen. If you're looking at the user straight on, the view doesn't change when you move to the side. But with the Kinect-based 3D system, if you move to one side, you see the side of his or her face, rather than just the front.



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