Kinecting with the masses

The open-source community has jumped on Microsoft's new gaming platform.

You could imagine the streets of Redmond, Wash., echoing with the sound of champagne bottles popping when Microsoft announced last month it had sold over one million of its new Kinects in just 10 days. Allowing people to interact with their Xbox entertainment consoles using gestures and voice commands, instead of a handheld controller, Kinect is the first leading- edge consumer technology Microsoft’s brought to market in years. The company had projected sales of five million units by year’s end, a goal they now seem likely to exceed. But not every Kinects is being put to the use Microsoft intended.

“We saw the hype about what was contained inside, all these sensors,” says Phil Torrone, the creative director of New York– based DIY electronics vendor Adafruit. “We thought, wow, that would be really interesting for people who do art projects, people who do science, people who do education. We thought it would be fun to use it for something else.”

After Kinect hit North American shelves on Nov. 4, Adafruit announced a bounty of $1,000 to the first hacker able to create an open-source driver for Kinect, a piece of software that would allow anybody to create programs that used the device’s powerful array of video cameras and microphones. Though Kinect arrived on the market with a handful of simple games, many analysts feel that gaming represents one of the least powerful potential applications of the new technology.

When Microsoft caught word of Adafruit’s efforts, it issued a warning. “Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products,” a spokesperson said, promising the company would “work closely with law enforcement and product-safety groups to keep Kinect tamperresistant.”

Undaunted, Adafruit raised their bounty to $2,000, then to $3,000, and to help people along, uploaded an analysis of the protocols Kinect uses to communicate through its USB plug. Within a few hours, a Spanish open-source advocate named Héctor Martín got a Kinect working with his Linux laptop, and released his open-source driver into the wild.

Since then, each day has seen a new innovation. One programmer has created a virtual gesturecontrolled puppet. Others have experimented with the Kinect as a 3-D camera, and an MIT student has built a robot with a Kinect for a head that can see its environment and obey verbal commands. To keep the momentum, Google engineer Matt Cutts launched a contest of his own, offering two $1,000 prizes for open Kinect projects.

Torrone thinks you could spend thousands of dollars on parts and build a device less powerful than Kinect, and suggests that Microsoft almost certainly subsidizes the $149 cost of the unit, hoping to profit via game sales. But despite the rapid spread of open Kinect developments — or because of it — Microsoft seems to have changed its tune. In a Nov. 19 interview with NPR, a company representative claimed they were “excited” to see the creative ways Kinect was being adapted, and that the device had been left open “by design” for exactly this sort of thing. Microsoft will no doubt be watching closely to see what uses the open source community finds for Kinect. Then it will surely look for a way to make money on them.