Today, Microsoft is releasing its biggest-yet update to its developer tools for Kinect for Windows, the PC-based version of the Kinect motion sensor. But over a year after the initial release, I’m curious why this add-on has never been issued as a real product. Then, as now, Kinect for Windows is a non-event.
Microsoft released Kinect for Windows in February 2012, calling it a “a cross-Microsoft effort” that featured a few improvements over the initial (and nearly physically identical) Xbox version: a Near Mode that allows the sensor to work as close as 40 centimeters from the user, the latest Microsoft Speech technologies, an improved "far talk" acoustic model for better speech recognition accuracy, significantly improved skeletal tracking, and, curiously, the ability to use as many as four Kinect sensors simultaneously on a single PC.
Intrigued, I purchased the device and gave it a spin, as documented in First Look: Kinect for Windows. Long story short, there was nothing to see here. The $250 device was aimed at developers who were willing to create applications for a market that didn’t even exist—still doesn’t—a long-shot given the economic uncertainties and the availability of actually popular platforms for which to write apps.
A year later, nothing’s changed. Kinect for Windows is still available from Amazon for the same crazy $250 pricetag. (It’s on sale currently for some reason.) There is still no consumer market for this device, and there are still no mainstream apps that take advantage of it. One imagines a “Minority Report”-like future in which we wave our hands around in front of —that will trigger some sales uptick, I’m sure—and make multi-touch look as old-fashioned as a command line.
But back to reality.
Today, Microsoft released Kinect for Windows SDK 1.7. According to Microsoft, this release offers “a wealth of new tools, samples, and features to help developers streamline application development and create smarter applications that respond to human voices and gestures in much the same way that people communicate with each other.” It sounds pretty exciting. Until you realize that its release will not benefit a single consumer for the foreseeable future.
Here’s the thing. In the old days, when Microsoft actually led the industry, it could formalize the acceptance of technology simply by including it in Windows. Today, Microsoft is instead following others, and while it’s addition of integrated multi-touch in Windows Phone and Windows 8 is certainly necessary, it’s also occurred so long after consumers actually accepted it that it’s become something of a non-event. Kinect’s motion- (and to a lesser degree, voice-) control was/is an opportunity to do what it used to do, and lead. And if it had added this technology to Windows 8, alongside multi-touch, we’d be having a very different conversation about this firm’s role in the future of computing than we are now.
But with Kinect for Windows still a cute little science experiment one year later, I’m left to wonder what happened to vision at Microsoft. Because they’ve got this potentially world-changing asset sitting here, and they don’t appear to be doing a damn thing with it. What are they waiting for? Windows 9?