Kinect for Your PC: The end of the Mouse, Finally?

Microsoft is bringing its hot-selling motion capture device for the Xbox 360 to the PC. Can this change how we use computers?

Is the end of the mouse approaching? If you've ever struggled with carpal tunnel syndrome or a repetitive strain injury like me, you probably wish for an alternative to the accursed rodent. The answer may be coming from the gaming world.

Microsoft has announced it plans to enable Kinect, the motion capture device for its Xbox 360 game console, on the PC. The Kinect has been a huge hit for Microsoft and has given the 360 a new lease on life in its sixth year on the market.

Microsoft has released an SDK for developers to create Windows apps in Visual C++, C#, or VB.  The SDK is pretty much a straight port of the Xbox 360 version, and the two platforms are very different. Kinect is built on Microsoft's XNA runtime, which in turn is built on the .NET Framework 2.0. It uses C# to build apps that fully utilize the Kinect's hardware, which consists of two cameras and a multi-array microphone.

A German firm, Evoluce, has already made its own Kinect interface called Win & I to control Windows 7. It even offers a business version with hooks into Office. While it looks like Evoluce did a good job, they clearly had to do a lot of heavy lifting that Microsoft will eliminate with the SDK.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Microsoft. It released a video conferencing camera called RoundTable in 2006, but in 2009 handed it off to Polycom, which specializes in this field. Still, it was good experience for Microsoft to learn audio and video recognition in a business setting.

The potential for Kinect is that it could spare a lot of folks from repetitive strain injuries by breaking our twenty-year dependence on the mouse. Microsoft has not said how it expects the software to be used, nor has it said if its own apps will be Kinect-enabled. Still, I have a hard time imagining they won't eat their own dog food, if only as proof of concept.

There's lots of potential, particularly for anyone who uses a lot of mouse-work to manipulate content. Imagine an artist who sits back and draws with his hands, or cuts, pastes and crops their work drawing in the air and the work appears in Photoshop.

This will also translate well to the CAD and design world, where 3D images can be rotated and manipulated through gesture. Developers creating UIs or doing modeling can move around models and connections by drawing in the air instead of click and drag.

Here's one example of how Kinect can control a PC from Evoluce Win&1

As a writer, I can see using it for cutting, pasting, moving and deleting text while keeping my hands close to the keyboard.

And I can imagine how some people may use it to give a simple, one-finger response in e-mail…

The challenge for Microsoft is two-fold: taking advantage of the platform, and distance. The former is what I described earlier. The SDK needs more to take advantage of the platform. They need to make it work with Windows 7 and have a few surprises for Windows 8. It needs to utilize multicore CPUs and advanced GPUs running DirectX 11. So the SDK needs a lot of work.

The other challenge is the distance required to use the Kinect. At the recent E3 show, I saw an interesting gadget called Zoom by the peripheral maker Nyko. They called it "glasses for Kinect" because it lets you stand up to 40 percent closer to your TV. They illustrated the point by putting markers on the ground for where the Kinect requires you to stand, and how much closer Zoom lets you stand. Kinect requires you to be about four feet from the TV. This is not practical in a desktop computing setting in most situations. So Microsoft will have to address that issue, lest we be forced to put the Kinect three feet behind the monitor.

Here's a video of the Zoom product used with Kinect

Still, I look forward to the day that I finally get that UI promised in "Minority Report," without the weird glove Tom Cruise had to wear.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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