Kinect is celebrating its first birthday. Originally designed as an Xbox 360 game controller, in June this year Microsoft opened up an SDK to allow people to develop apps for it, providing they weren’t commercial in nature.
This week, the company announced that anyone, commercial or not, will be able to develop apps for Kinect. The question is, will we suddenly start to see Kinect as a genuinely useful business tool?
Along with the release, Microsoft’s engineers put out a video (that’s it above) talking about what they call The Kinect Effect. In the video we see a surgeon using Kinect to bring up digital medical scans, a student in class manipulating DNA, a father playing with a book with his son, musicians playing instruments, and so on. It’s impressive and inspiring stuff.
The Kinect video follows hot on the heels from one last week – a vision of Office 2019. (In fact, it’s slightly grandly called “Microsoft in 2019”.) The “vision” video is much more about interaction, as opposed to Kinect which – if you reflect on the video – is typically about individuals working independently with their own data.
In both videos there’s a classroom vignette. In the Kinect one, a student stands alone and pulls apart a strand of DNA. In the Office 2019 one, students touch and sketch on a shared surface and flowing information between the two environments. Most of the story of the Office 2019 video takes place in a video, however. Again, data is shared and flows between teams and individuals – albeit in a magical future world where half our lives is not spent ticking onscreen boxes where we assent to share data. But I digress.
Importantly, the Office 2019 video appears to be inspired by ideas from Microsoft Surface, a technology that takes natural touch technologies such as on smartphones and tablets but on a bigger scale. Rather than a small screen, you have a large table – ie, a “surface” – comprising a projector and sensing technologies. It should be noted, however, that Surface is horrendously expensive, as we shall see.
In terms of the present, many of my clients now use iPads in sales demos rather than sitting the clients in front of a projector. The reason is obvious – giving the client the product to prod and poke and play with builds a relationship both with the software and with the vendor. What used to be a meeting is now a workshop with greatly enhanced interactivity. In many ways, it’s what you do when Surface-like technologies from the Office 2019 video are outside the mainstream.
Where does Kinect fit in?
The Kinect Effect video, the Office 2019 video and my clients’ drift away from using projectors in meetings to iPads are trying to show us how the tech in the world that we live in is changing. What the iPad taught us, and why it’s so popular, is that the facade of mouse and keyboard isn’t as important as it once was, especially when working in groups. As we move forward we’ll tend towards technologies that allow us to prod and poke and pull at our data and ideas in a totally natural and free-form way.
In the Office 2019 video, the way that data flows around teams and between individuals is important and inspiring. Importantly, we know as engineers that we can do this today. There isn’t anything futuristic about the actual software in that video. It’s all basic stuff. At the heart of it, that Office 2019 video is just about new display technologies and increased bandwidth.
But we all want that impossible future shown in that video. It looks great, it’s logical and confident. We know we’re getting there. There’s no chance we’ll get that display technology within the next eight years, but that’s by-the-by.
The problem that we have today is that Surface is really expensive. You’re looking at a price tag of £8,000 for just one table, £10,000 if you want a developer kit. Kinect, on the other hand, is dirt cheap. £100 for the unit plus £500 for a projector and screen and you’re done. You can even get a dedicated PC to run the whole show for £200. From the smallest meeting room for the smallest business to the largest boardroom you can put a Kinect in it with a discretionary budget item of around £800-£1,000.
An obvious question is, “why aren’t we?” We have the technology and skills to write the software shown in the Office 2019 video today. We can’t afford Surfaces, but we can afford Kinects. But as that’s true, why have I – and I suspect I’m not alone – not seen one in use in business in the past six months?
I suspect that, sadly, Kinect is a problem in search of a solution. Using one in an operating theatre makes immense amounts of sense – you don’t have to worry about sanitising something that you don’t touch. Giving a presentation and waving PowerPoint slides by makes plenty of sense too, but that’s a feature that’ll take Microsoft 10 minutes to add to Office. (That’s if Kinect works in a crowded room.) But you only have to think for a moment to realise that an infrared or Bluetooth clicker is far easier to use than Kinect; a click on a mousepad button even simpler. And those are all going to be cheaper and more reliable than a Kinect.
The iPad isn’t a problem in search of a solution – it’s got its story the proper way round. This is why my clients, and I suspect yours, use them to bring people closer sales demos. Not touching something is not a natural state for a human being. Touching something is. My kids, both too young to use a mouse, can use an iPad without any obvious conscious effort at all and I don’t ever remember watching them try and understand it. That’s because since they were born they’ve been touching and using objects. Wiping their finger across a screen to change a photo is just as natural as lifting a spoon to their mouths or stacking bricks on top of each other.
But by contrast, moving an object on a screen by touching something that’s not there isn’t natural. I think this is why Kinect hasn’t found its own way into mainstream use yet; our future world of 2019 will be based on touch and tactility. It won’t, I think, be based on us waving our arms in the air. Unless you’re a surgeon, or you direct planes, or you’re a semaphore messenger.