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Kinect Hacking Grows Motion Gaming

January 21, 2011

I was pleased to hear the Kinect is getting lots of interesting ideas added to it, not from official development but from hacking it:

Games designers have built sports, fitness and dance games where gestures decide what happens, but it’s the “hacks”, not the games, that have people like Baker so excited. The open-source software developed to interpret Kinect output – to a standard USB plug – has already been used for dozens of projects: a team at a US university has created a miniature helicopter that flies itself and avoids obstacles; another has made a “virtual piano” on the floor (you play it with your feet); the multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft can now be playedsimply by using gestures, thanks to the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, which has written a special software “toolkit”. The institute has bigger plans for the future: medical games to help people regain the use of their limbs after a stroke, indoor exercise games and so on.

Even more impressive is the work done by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which amplified the hand detection to recognise hands and fingers and then linked it to a program for scrolling pictures, giving something of the feeling of Minority Report, the film in which Tom Cruise waved computer files and videos around in his search for crime suspects. Watching the MIT video is eerie if you have seen the film – it’s as though the future is unfolding before your eyes.

Yet at first Microsoft seemed unwilling to let people dig under the surface of its software. At the launch on 4 November, it told the news site CNet: “Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products… with Kinect, Microsoft built in numerous hardware and software safeguards designed to reduce the chances of product tampering. Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.”

That didn’t prevent two developers and a Google engineer putting up a $4,000 bounty for anyone who could write software that would work independently of the Xbox and so let it be used for more than just games. As they pointed out, people had done much the same with Nintendo’s Wii, which uses the widely available Bluetooth communications standard, to create some interesting hacks.

Within a fortnight, Alex Kipman, the Xbox’s “director of incubation”, was insisting the Kinect was open by design and that Microsoft was excited about the idea of people designing new applications for it; the company seems to have initially misunderstood what sort of hacking was going on and thought that people were opening up the innards of the machine to get at its proprietary (and highly valuable) chips and software, rather than simply playing around with its output.

This is a bit of a welcome U-Turn. Microsoft’s people have in the past been very disparaging about open-source. It seems that they now “get” why this is not a threat, but a boon to innovation.

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