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Originally published October 31, 2011 at 3:02 AM | Page modified October 31, 2011 at 7:07 AM

As people experiment, they find Kinect is much more than a game

Kinect launched a year ago to accompany Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming consoles, but people have since experimented with using the motion-sensing, voice-recognition technology for a variety of other purposes. Now Microsoft is announcing it's launching a program to provide tools to build business applications using Kinect.

Seattle Times technology reporter

quotes The Kinect is probably the best innovation that came to market from Microsoft in some... Read more
quotes Lakeside Center for Autism in Issaquah has been a fantastic therapy center for our son... Read more
quotes I am thrilled that Kinect is being used for breakthrough technology for Autism. Great... Read more

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At the Lakeside Center for Autism in Issaquah, three 5-year-olds stand in front of a big screen displaying a river-rafting game. They laugh as they jump or wave their arms, making their on-screen avatars do the same through the use of Kinect motion-sensing technology.

Across the globe, hospitals in Cantabria, Spain, are testing a Kinect application allowing doctors and nurses to wave their arms to pull up patient charts or X-rays.

And Razorfish, a marketing agency that started in Seattle, is experimenting with a retail application using Kinect that would allow shoppers to project their image on a screen to see how various purses they're considering look as they hold them.

Kinect, launched a year ago to accompany Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming consoles, enables people to control and take part in games using only gestures, body movements or voice commands.

Since then, though, people in different spheres have experimented with using Kinect for other purposes.

Microsoft dubbed the phenomenon the "Kinect Effect" and is announcing Monday that it expects to launch a Kinect for Windows commercial program early next year.

The program is designed to provide tools — mainly a software development kit — to build business applications using Kinect.

It's a phenomenon that sometimes surprises even its lead creator.

There's "an amazing amount of stuff that moved me that I did not expect," said Alex Kipman, general manager of incubation for Microsoft's interactive entertainment business.

Initial mission

The mission Kipman, a shaggy-haired, jeans- and black-and-white sneakers-clad dude, faced a while ago was to come up with something that could help Microsoft revolutionize entertainment — or at least make it stand above the Nintendo Wii.

The result was Kinect, which allowed users to control the Xbox using only voice and gestures — with no need for controllers — and to see and control physical representations of themselves onscreen on Xbox games such as "Dance Central" and "River Rush."

Since the launch, Kipman says, what's surprised him is the personal stories he hears from people.

Kipman heard about someone who had bought a Kinect for Xbox because he was a gamer, but his little brother, who is autistic and had never interacted much with either him or with technology, started playing games with him using Kinect.

Their mother walked in, saw them, and started crying, Kipman said.

Kipman said he's also heard about military folks back from war zones who use Kinect.

"Think of all the people coming back with an amputated limb of some sort — somebody very independent, a freaking military dude or dudette — now missing a right arm or leg," he said.

"Imagine when they step in front of a [Kinect] sensor, and they can play pingpong again when they don't have a right arm.... and playing like they have both hands."

At the Lakeside Center for Autism, staff members have found the Kinect games helpful on a variety of fronts.

Biofeedback

The games work well for kids who are either sensory seeking and under or over responsive because the games provide a biofeedback mechanism for the kids, said founder and CEO Dan Stachelski.Imagine you're in a totally dark forest — what you do is seek a point of reference, Stachelski said. Kids with autism constantly seek that point of reference, so being able to see direct feedback of their actions is helpful, he said.

Development kit

About six months ago, Microsoft launched a program giving academics a software-development kit for Kinect applications.

Now it's expanding that program to include commercial entities, with more than 200 businesses, including Toyota and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, involved in a pilot program to launch early next year.

On a day earlier this month, Jesús Pérez Llano was touring the Microsoft campus and meeting Kipman — his prize for winning a contest in Spain to develop Kinect applications.

Pérez Llano, CEO of the tech company Tedesys, started following the development of what became Kinect out of personal interest. After Kinect for Xbox 360 came out, he bought one, wanting to see if his company could use it to develop tools for businesses.

A doctor friend saw it and immediately realized its potential for the medical field.

Pilot program

Tedesys, one of the 200 businesses taking part in the pilot program, is now experimenting with using Kinect in operating rooms.

With the application, surgeons can just wave their arms to control computer-assisted surgery applications. That saves the doctors time and lowers the risk of infection, Pérez Llano said.

"That's the key point of all this technology: You don't touch," Pérez Llano says. "So there's less risk of bacterial infection."

Razorfish, the marketing agency, is also taking part in the commercial pilot program.

It has several Kinect applications in the works, including the virtual purse display.

Kinect allows for a personal, immersed event, said Jonathan Hull, managing director of emerging-experiences practice for Razorfish. "It has great commercial potential."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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