One of the more interesting things to come out of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was Microsoft’s official announcement of a Windows-compatible version of its Kinect camera. Kinect, if you’re not familiar with it, is a camera array with 3D sensing capabilities that Microsoft first launched for its Xbox 360 games console. The cameras within the Kinect sensor track your body movements in real time, and this allows the Xbox 360 to offer both physical screen selections — swiping your arms around to select things or change pages — as well as more “physical” gaming experiences, including a number of fitness titles.
Kinect might have its roots in gaming, but it didn’t take long for keen hackers to see the potential in hooking up the sensor to a regular PC and use its 3D modelling capabilities for other purposes. To Microsoft’s credit, it didn’t shy away from or try to block the hackers; there was (in effect) unofficial “support” for Kinect hacking; Microsoft didn’t specifically sell the sensor to do anything but gaming, but was happy enough with some of the side efforts that came out of it. If the hackers broke a Kinect sensor or two along the way, Microsoft was more than happy to sell them another.
Kinect for Windows changes that arrangement somewhat. For a start, the “official” Windows Kinect (which will launch in Australia on February 1st) is more expensive than the Xbox version; a sensor and software will cost $299, something Microsoft puts down to the Windows Kinect sensor being a standalone product; it figures that money can be made with Kinect games on the Xbox 360, whereas the PC version may not generate any more income directly.
It’s also somewhat annoying to note that the official CES announcement pegged the price at $US249, but the Australian price is a chunky $50 more; while there are some tax considerations to take in mind, not to mention shipping, that kind of price difference does sting a bit.
The really interesting question for Kinect For Windows is what it’ll be good for. Clearly there’ll be some cross-porting of existing games titles, but that leaves the Kinect as only a rather expensive games controller.
There’s all sorts of potential for a touch-free navigation environment on the PC, albeit one that’d work a lot better for a PC connected like a home media centre than one connected to a notebook that’s sitting right in front of you. Microsoft’s claim for the Windows sensor (and not the cheaper Xbox one) is that it’s optimised for close up work of this kind, but I’m a little lost to work out what’ll make the most sense for that kind of interaction (outside of certain mobility limited scenarios) that couldn’t be done just as well with the tap of a mouse button or click of a keyboard. The new Windows 8 “Metro” user interface is built on Microsoft’s experiences with touch on the Windows Phone platform, and I can see how that could work with Kinect, but at the same time interface designers will have to work around implementing both Kinect and standard interfaces; at a $299 per user price point I’m not totally convinced that many will.