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Microsoft Launches New Motion-Detection Device

Microsoft takes technological leap with Kinect

By Richard Waters in San Francisco

Published (Financial Times): November 2 2010 16:58 | Last updated: November 2 2010 16:58

Microsoft is set the roll the dice this week on an ambitious new consumer technology which executives at the software company claim will bring a far-reaching new way for people to interact with computers.

Sold initially as an add-on for the Xbox games console, the device, called Kinect, uses motion-detecting cameras and microphones to sense commands, leading to what Microsoft claims will be a more natural human/computer interface based on gestures and speech.

Hopes for the long-term potential of the technology are running high inside Microsoft, where Kinect – which was originally named Project Natal – is seen as the company’s most important new consumer product in years. The technological advances it represents have also won plaudits outside the company.

“It’s the first meaningful device that combines motion control, voice control and facial recognition – that’s real science fiction,” said James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. He added, though, that Microsoft needed to overcome some historic limitations if it was to turn the technological potential into hit consumer products.

Microsoft has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars in its research labs trying to invent new and more natural ways for people to control computers, only to see rivals steal its thunder with technologies that have quickly won mass appeal.

Nintendo grabbed a lead in the games business with the motion-sensing controller for its Wii console, while Apple’s iPhone introduced a multi-touch interface that has sparked a scramble in the smartphone and tablet computer markets.

Technology companies “are spending more and more time putting gadgets and gizmos in your hand – we wanted to remove that,” said Alex Kipman, who led development of the project.

Microsoft has limited its work with Kinect so far to building the technology into its game console, but believes it will eventually have a far wider impact, Mr Kipman said. Future applications might include its use inside sterile operating theatres, where surgeons would be able to summon up information simply by sweeping their hands in front of a screen and speaking commands, he added.

Adding to its arsenal of technologies to support a more natural human interface, Microsoft last week bought Canesta, a private company based in Silicon Valley which has developed a chip that senses objects in 3D. The 44 patents claimed by Canesta will add to what Mr Kipman described as “several hundred” Microsoft patents already supporting Kinect.

To make the most of the promising new technology, Microsoft would have to focus more attention on it than it had so far shown, said Mr McQuivey. The huge profits it earned from the Windows operating system had historically prevented the company from realising the full potential of new technologies like this, preferring instead to see them as subservient to Windows, he added.

He also said that Microsoft had done nothing yet to encourage other developers to start creating applications that would take full advantage of Kinect, in much the way Apple opened up its iPhone platform.

Mr Kipman said that the Kinect had support at “the highest levels” inside Microsoft and discussions had already been held with other divisions at the company about how the technology might be applied.

Kinect is due to go on sale in the US on Thursday, and in Europe on November 10.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010. Print a single copy of this article for personal use. Contact us if you wish to print more to distribute to others.

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