Steve Marcus/ReutersREDMOND, Wash. — Behind Kinect, the computer game device that recognizes gestures and voice commands, lies a far larger agenda for Microsoft.
The Kinect technology, according to Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, is the beginning of a new way of communicating with computers. For the past quarter of a century, computing has mainly meant typing on a keyboard and using a computer mouse to point and click on graphic icons on the screen — the graphical user interface, or GUI (“gooey”).
Kinect, a $150 add-on to the Xbox game console, points the way to a different model, a natural user interface, or NUI, said Mr. Mundie. Increasingly, he insists, the computers that surround us will understand our speech and hand gestures. The machines, in essence, will become a bit more human.
Kinect, Mr. Mundie said, was “the first incarnation of the next big thing in computing.”
That was the main theme of a daylong series of talks and presentations on Monday by Microsoft researchers and executives here at the company’s headquarters. For the last few years, Mr. Mundie has hosted these annual gatherings for a small group of journalists, to offer a glimpse of some of the work-in-progress in Microsoft’s research labs.
The company sold more than 8 million Kinect devices in its first 60 days on the market, starting in November. That success validated the work done on the project by seven different groups within Microsoft labs over the last few years, Mr. Mundie said.
This year, most Xbox sales are expected to include a Kinect device, said Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft’s interactive entertainment business. And Microsoft announced that in the next month or so it would release an initial software developer’s kit for programmers who wanted to make applications using the Kinect technology.
Those bundled Xbox-Kinect sales? Think Windows and Office bundled sales. Ditto for the developers’ tools for Xbox-Kinect, as there are developer tools for Windows and Office. Clearly, Microsoft views Xbox-Kinect as a potentially big, new technology platform that others build on, extending its reach and reinforcing its value — a rerun of the Windows-Office story.
The first set of software developer tools is for academics and enthusiasts, who have already begun hacking Kinect to make home-grown applications. The tools will make it easier for them to write more sophisticated programs. “We’re embracing that community,” Mr. Mattrick said. “This is the next step in the journey.”
Later, Mr. Mundie noted, Microsoft will offer software tools for developers that want to make money from writing applications for Kinect. Microsoft, he added, had not decided what the terms and conditions would be for commercial applications.
During the day, Microsoft scientists showed off research projects that exploited the technology used in Kinect — to recognize physical objects of all kinds, human faces, expressions, gestures and speech.
The potential uses include inexpensive 3-D design and modeling, photo-realistic human avatars and “smart” displays that, for example, might be able to direct two different visual and audio streams to two people sitting in the same room. A couple, for example, might be able to watch and hear two different television shows, streamed from the same set, and without headphones.
The demonstrations were animated by speech or gestures, waving a hand or stroking a screen. “There’s not a button or a switch,” said Peter Lee, managing director of Microsoft’s research lab in Redmond. “It’s just you. The success of Kinect shows a pathway to go forward.”