Taking to the Kinect wave
The Kinect system is part of a major transition in the computer industry toward technology that better understands people and what they're trying to do.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Alex Kipman noticed something unusual about babies who grew up around the Kinect system his team was creating in Redmond.
Several "Kinect babies" were born over the past two years to parents building the system, which controls an Xbox 360 console with gestures, voice controls and facial-recognition software.
Kipman, a 31-year-old Brazilian engineer in charge of incubating new Xbox technologies, said the goal is to move toward a world where people don't have to know so much about technology.
It's part of a major transition in the computer industry, he said, toward technology that better understands people and what they're trying to do.
So Kipman was thrilled to see how Kinect affected children who spent their first years exposed to the system, at home and in Microsoft offices.
Just as iPhone users came to expect all phones to have touch screens, these children expect to control TV sets with gestures.
"Every single one of them, if they see a television — it doesn't matter whether it has Kinect or not — they wave to it," he said.
Kipman said future generations may be puzzled by today's keyboards and computer mice, similar to the way characters in a "Star Trek" movie were unable to use present-day computers when they traveled back in time. They thought you could just speak to the machines, as you can with Kinect.
"We are able to accomplish moving science fiction to 'science fact,' " he said.
A year and a half after its unveiling stole the show at a Los Angeles game conference, Kinect goes on sale Thursday for $150, or bundled with Xbox 360 consoles for $300 to $400. The device consists of a roughly foot-long cylindrical sensor that sits in front of TV set, where it uses a camera, depth-sensor and microphone to hear and see who is in the room and track two players at once during games.
The system had been known as "Project Natal," a code name Kipman chose because he used to spend summers in the Brazilian city of Natal.
Kinect is a response to Nintendo's Wii, which broadened the appeal of video games with its easy-to-understand, motion-sensitive controller.
But it snowballed. Microsoft's now doing much more than adding motion controls to Xbox.
Kinect marks a major overhaul of the Xbox console. In advance of this week's launch, the console itself was redesigned this summer to be quieter and more reliable. There's a new on-screen layout with larger buttons that are easier to "press" with gestures.
Microsoft's also added new features and services to make the system into more of an entertainment hub, including live sports events streamed from ESPN.
Since the Xbox 360 arrived five years ago, 42 million consoles have been sold in 35 countries. Players are spending more than a billion hours per month on the companion Xbox Live network, and the time spent watching TV and movies on Xbox grew 157 percent over the past year, according to Microsoft.
More important than yesterday's numbers is how Kinect may position Microsoft for the future.
Kinect is giving Microsoft pole position in the race to develop the next generation of interfaces. The blend of voice, gesture and recognition technology that Kinect has eventually could be used in everything from touchless computers and phones to supermarket checkout stands and railway turnstiles that see who you are and let you pay with a word or a wave.
"Kinect is the catalyst, the beacon of this transition moment," Kipman said.
Part of the change is educating users. Microsoft is doing this with one of its largest marketing campaigns, rumored to be nearly $500 million. In addition to TV, print and Web ads, Microsoft has arranged for Kinect to be featured on talk shows, in Justin Bieber concerts and in 7,000 "midnight madness" launch events starting Wednesday night.
Building a team
In Redmond, the company built a team of about 1,000, including a new 65-employee game studio in Redmond Town Center. The group drew on the Seattle area, inviting more than 1,000 people — families, school groups and Scouts — to secretly test the system in its labs alongside Highway 520.
Kinect drew on decades of research the company has done on computer interfaces and at companies Microsoft bought to support the project. In April 2009 it acquired an Israeli company that developed depth-sensing 3-D cameras, and Friday it bought another leader in the space, Canesta, a Silicon Valley company with extensive motion-control patents.
The massive investment may be because Kinect does more than refresh the Xbox. It's also a rebuttal to perceptions — fed by Microsoft's slow responses to the iPod, iPhone and iPad — that the company isn't innovative and doesn't understand consumers.
How was Kipman able to shepherd a bleeding-edge product through Microsoft's vast bureaucracy, quickly taking it from a taped-together science project to a product expected to sell 3 million units this holiday season?
"The way you do this is by having a really strong leadership team and a really strong ability to be focused on doing things that are 10 times better," he said. "You have to wake up in the morning and say, 'Do I want to be derivative, or do I want to be innovative?' "
Kipman joined Microsoft in 2001, directly from Rochester Institute of Technology, where he studied software engineering. For a senior project, he worked on an early voice-recognition system for phones. He also did imaging science research with NASA on infrared astronomy.
In Redmond, he worked on compilers in the server group and then underpinnings in Windows Vista and Windows 7 before deciding to go back to video games, which had introduced him to computing through an Atari console.
Don Mattrick, head of Microsoft's interactive-entertainment business, asked him to figure out ways to expand video gaming beyond the current 40 million to 100 million players to reach more of the 6 billion other people in the world.
"It didn't take long to say, 'You know what, people? Pressing buttons and technology is getting in the way,' " Kipman said. "There's nothing wrong with the art form, there's something wrong with the input."
Kipman said incubation groups like his are common at Microsoft. They're a way for the company to send out an exploratory dinghy before putting the entire ship at risk with a turn that could hit an iceberg.
"It's not that complicated," he said. "What it takes is leadership ... to be able to (a) believe, (b) nurture and (c) allow the organization to be focused on these experiences that at the end of the day allow us to redefine the future."
While Kipman has been refining Kinect, Shannon Loftis has been building new games to showcase the system at Good Science, a new Microsoft game studio in Redmond Town Center.
Loftis has developed games for Microsoft since 1995 and gave up a plum post working with studios in England to start Good Science. Her team built prototypes to showcase the early hardware, helped other studios learn to use Kinect and built the "Adventures" game that comes bundled with the sensor. Along the way, the team members lost a combined 423 pounds of weight with all the Kinect play.
Kinect has "extremely positive energy" within the company, she said.
"Obviously at the beginning there were a few doubters, but as soon as you've actually experienced even the early prototypes, people got on board really quickly," she said. "Kinect creates opportunity. ... It's a combination of the solid and the wild creative, and it's just been really, really fun."
Game studios often contract after a launch, but Loftis expects Good Science will keep growing.
"I don't see that happening because I think we still have a lot of unexplored territory with Kinect," she said. "We have lots and lots of capability-development to do yet — I actually see us expanding further."
Loftis said studios will release 15 new Kinect games per quarter in 2011.
Kipman also said the launch is just a start.
Microsoft has a long list of electronics companies waiting to discuss Kinect technology.
Meanwhile, Kipman will return from a national media tour and get a chance to do user testing at home on the Eastside.
Kipman's been keeping in touch with his 4-week-old daughter via Kinect's videochat feature. He needs to teach her how to use a remote control — before it becomes obsolete.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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