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New York Times article about Kinect's success

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New York Times article about Kinect's success
06-16-2012, 04:18 AM
Post: #1
New York Times article about Kinect's success

the following are only excerpts. It's an immense article, articulately written so please visit the actual article for full text:

Freaks, Geeks and Microsoft
How Kinect Spawned a Commercial Ecosystem

When the Kinect was introduced in November 2010 as a $150 motion-control add-on to Microsoft’s Xbox consoles, it drew attention from more than just video-gamers. A slim, black, oblong 11½-inch wedge perched on a base, it allowed a gamer to use his or her body to throw virtual footballs or kick virtual opponents without a controller, but it was also seen as an important step forward in controlling technology with natural gestures.

“Kinect hackers” were drawn to the fact that the object affordably synthesizes an arsenal of sophisticated components — notably, a fancy video camera, a “depth sensor” to capture visual data in three dimensions and a multiarray microphone capable of a similar trick with audio.

Combined with a powerful microchip and software, these capabilities could be put to uses unrelated to the Xbox.

An object that spawns its own commercial ecosystem is a thing to take seriously. Think of what Apple’s app store did for the iPhone, or for that matter how software continuously expanded the possibilities of the personal computer. Patent-watching sites report that in recent months, Sony, Apple and Google have all registered plans for gesture-control technologies like the Kinect. But there is disagreement about exactly how the Kinect evolved into an object with such potential. Did Microsoft intentionally create a versatile platform analogous to the app store? Or did outsider tech-artists and hobbyists take what the company thought of as a gaming device and redefine its potential?

Kinect hackers may not have cared about video games, but what they wanted — a device containing specific high-tech components for just $150 — was achievable specifically because of its connection to something with the scale of the Xbox system. Only a company the size of Microsoft could afford the massive research-and-development costs, and only mass-market appeal could make such a product financially viable.

Kyle McDonald, a digital artist based in Brooklyn, had been working with 3-D sensor technology for years when the Kinect came out, so at first he underestimated the significance of Microsoft’s latest product. But within a week, the hacker videos and online commentary changed his mind, and he bought one. This is evidence of something even more surprising than the possibility that Microsoft had learned to love the hackers: Outsider tech creators have learned to love a Microsoft product. Or if not love, then at least take it seriously. McDonald teaches a class at New York University on “appropriating new technologies.” The goal of any given Kinect hack, he says, isn’t simply to create a high-tech puppet show but to understand how the device works and what its function could be.

The theory that companies should wholeheartedly embrace strange experimentations of people like McDonald turns on a straightforward idea: It’s good for the bottom line. “You get unexpected uses of your products that might contribute to a different direction your company can go,” says Bas van Abel, a designer in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and co-author of the book “Open Design Now.” Established companies may still resist that argument, but more and more upstarts take it for granted that a community of customers, hobbyists and amateurs (or, as van Abel prefers, hackers and artists) will innovate well beyond what any firm can come up with on its own.

The Microsoft Research Kinect software developer kit — the one announced shortly after the OpenKinect kerfuffle and released last summer — was intended for academics and enthusiasts and carried a license that ruled out business uses; one Kinect hacker complained to me that using it amounted to giving Microsoft free publicity.

A new version of the Kinect, specifically designed to work with a Windows P.C., came out in February, along with a software kit that would allow developers to create commercial Kinect applications. The P.C. version of the device costs $250, or $100 more than the Xbox version, but the developer software is free. (A slightly upgraded version was released in May.) By March, Microsoft announced team-ups with 350 commercial partners on applications for hospitals, assembly lines, work-force training and so on, including many big corporate names, like American Express and Toyota.

Kyle McDonald, the Brooklyn artist who initially underestimated the Kinect’s importance, still works with the device today. And he’s intrigued by the fact that so many people like him are still experimenting with it, using it in new ways and sharing the code that makes it possible for others to do the same. “People are trying to decide for themselves what they want these technologies to mean,” McDonald says. The answer used to come from defense firms, academia, megacorporations. “It can’t be just them,” he continues. “It has to be everyone.” Maybe that’s supposed to mean a new form of harmony between corporations and outsiders, but in this case, it feels like creative friction.

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