Kinect Hacks Finally Legitimate – Is Skype Next? Microsoft Releases Developer Kit for Motion- and Sound-Sensing Controller

[Updated 2:10 pm with more details throughout] It’s not just for bootleggers anymore. Today, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is making good on its promises to officially open up the Xbox 360’s Kinect motion sensor, offering a software development kit download for non-commercial uses. That means it’s aimed at “enthusiasts and academics,” some of whom the company said it invited over to its Redmond, WA campus for an all-day hackathon yesterday to start road-testing the kit.

While today’s beta version of the kit for Windows 7 isn’t aimed at commercial developers, Microsoft has already said it’s heading that way eventually, with Microsoft Research distinguished scientist Anoop Gupta telling CNet earlier this year that he thinks it could be “a meaningful business” in both software and hardware.

One of the chief areas that seems primed for Kinect’s technology is a combination with Microsoft’s recent $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype, the online video-conferencing service. Gupta told me in a follow-up interview today that video-conferencing—something Microsoft calls “telepresence”—is one of the big areas he personally sees as a holding rich potential for Kinect development.

For non-gamers who may have missed all the hubbub, Kinect is a bar-shaped sensor that uses cameras, microphones, and sophisticated software to detect live movements by people playing Xbox games. It is sensitive and sharp enough to distinguish depth, sense separate people standing in the same area, notice faces and pick up on hand movements.

Interest in the device quickly spread beyond video games, inspiring all kinds of futuristic-semming motion-controlled hacks right after it hit the market in late 2010—one of the most noted early adaptations was the effort by some University of Washington engineering students to use the Kinect for research into how surgeons can better control robots to perform delicate surgeries.

Microsoft was caught off-guard by the immediate enthusiasm for Kinect hacks, at first poormouthing the phenomenon and then clarifying that it intended to open up the technology all along. I guess this week’s hackathon leaves little doubt about the company’s seriousness for developing an ecosystem around the product, but it remains to be seen how soon Microsoft will go after the commercial side.

Gupta declined to give a timeline for a commercial release, saying in Microsoft’s in-house video conference that “Although our intent is to release a commercial SDK, we’re not making any announcements about it now.”

There’s not really anything stopping someone from doing some homework ahead of time, of course, and those academics have been known to turn their research into businesses from time to time. But Gupta also reminded business-minded hackers that the programming interface could change when CNet caught up with him in April.

“For a while, it was [that] you were waiting for the SDK,” Gupta said to developers in Microsoft’s announcement. “Now, it is I am waiting to see what are the exciting things the community is … Next Page »

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