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 going to do—what is the magic they’re going to create.” Gupta said some of his favorite early uses include a mounted controller for a quadrocopter, technology aimed at helping visually impaired people, and the ability to be a virtual orchestra conductor by changing volume, tempo, and other musical features with your hands.

Gupta said he could talk all day about the new possibilities for Kinect. That would have been fine with me, but the PR people wouldn’t really allow me to hijack their scientist for a nine-hour futuristic download. Nevertheless, Gupta had some tantalizing highlights in mind.

The first thing he mentioned was videoconferencing, which is particularly interesting in light of the Skype acquisition, as I mentioned above. “If you have a 3D model of the person that is there and is being understood in real time, you can place people in virtual meeting environments, depending on where the other people are,” Gupta said. “It makes it very realistic in that you can understand who is talking, where somebody is, doing what kind of activity.”

Gupta also said he sees lots of opportunities in robotics, where 3D sensing and controls are paramount; in retail, where billboards or window displays can recognize people and draw interaction, as shown in this earlier experiment with Nordstrom; and in automobiles, including user interfaces that can detect and distinguish between a number of people in a car.

This Kinect strategy is kind of a no-brainer for Microsoft, which often gets criticized for being a behemoth business-software company that can’t capture consumer imagination like its rivals. Xbox in general has always been the glaring exception to that rule, and the Kinect was a big leap ahead—when it came out, Sony’s PlayStation 3 was issuing a handheld motion-sensing controller that was basically a Nintendo Wii copycat.

Gupta said there’s more testing and quality-control work to be done before Microsoft gets serious about a commercial version. Properly executing on that opportunity will be a big test in the market’s eyes. As Gupta mentioned, it’s an order-of-magnitude opportunity: Moving from tens of millions of gamers to potentially hundreds of millions of Windows PC users. “I think the possibilities are limitless in what people can do,” Gupta said.

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