E-MOTION: Computer motion control has applications well beyond gaming that some businesses are starting to exploit in ways that further breaks down the divide between work and play. Image: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN/LARRY GREENEMEIER
When Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360 debuted in November, it offered a revolutionary way to interact with gaming systems, using only bodily motion as the controller. Already a success in the home—Microsoft says it has sold eight million Kinect sensors so far—controllerless computer interfaces could soon move beyond play to help out in the work place, for example, enabling manipulation of digital files using only gestures à la the film Minority Report. Researchers suggest motion controlled computing might one day help make office drudgery as enjoyable as dancing and sports or as relaxing as yoga and tai chi.
Kinect is a motion-sensing Webcamlike add-on for the Xbox 360 game console that uses an infrared scanner to create 3-D models of people as they move. This allows people to play games by, for example, moving their arms in a swimming motion, shimmying their bodies or other so-called natural interactions.
The Kinect has quickly drawn the attention not just of gamers but of hackers as well. Programmers developed code to tap into the raw data from the Kinect less than a week after the device came out. In doing so, they have created a thriving community testing the limits of what it could really do, such as helping mobile robots respond to gestural commands and creating interactive public art exhibits. These hackers have Microsoft's blessing. "We are perfectly comfortable with hobbyists taking advantage of that raw data to explore the exciting possibilities of Kinect for Xbox 360 for themselves," says Alex Kipman, Microsoft's director of incubation for the Xbox 360.
These efforts are developing ways for controlling personal computers with the Kinect. A group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) developed the Depthjs hack to surf the Web with the device, whereas hacks for gesture-based control of Windows 7 applications as well as PowerPoint and pdf presentations came out from Evoluce, a multi-touch screen technology company in Germany. Microsoft has also enabled a way to videoconference through Kinect with VideoKinect, taking advantage of the camera and microphone also within the device.
Now PrimeSense, the Israel-based company that makes the 3-D sensing technology inside Kinect, is teaming up Taiwan-based computer-maker ASUS for a device called the WAVI Xtion to control PCs much as the Kinect does. The new device, which debuted at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, is scheduled to be commercially available later this year.
These advances in controllerless computing might venture far outside the home and office. "Our general vision is natural interaction everywhere," says PrimeSense vice president of marketing and business development, Adi Berenson. "This means that you should expect to see from us solutions for portability, mobility, handhelds, robotics, automotive and more."
The science of gestures
How might Kinect and related technologies improve how we interact with computers?
"If you can imagine the relief you might feel throwing files into the trash with the Kinect or the interest you feel in lovingly arranging things, you can see how gestures can have an impact on you," says computer and social scientist Katherine Isbister at Polytechnic Institute of New York University in Brooklyn. "Being able to use more of our physical expressivity could be great."