Hands-free apps, for industries like healthcare and engineering, could be the next frontier in business computing.
In an effort to breathe new life into the faltering PC market, which in recent months has lost ground to buzzworthy gadgets like tablets and smartphones, Microsoft on Monday said it plans to release software that will enable developers to create Kinect-compatible apps that can run on Windows-based desktops and laptops.
Kinect is a system Microsoft originally developed for its Xbox video game console. It allows players to interact with games through physical gestures that are picked up by Kinect's wide array of sound and motion sensors and translated into the equivalent of controller commands.
The system has proven so popular it was recently declared the fastest selling tech gadget of all time by Guinness Records.
But Microsoft said the technology's potential goes well beyond games and entertainment.
"When we first saw the Kinect it became completely obvious that what we wanted to do was control the universe with our fingertips," said Curtis Wong, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, in a video posted to the company's Web site.
Indeed, Microsoft believes hands-free computing will gain a foothold in a number of key industries, including education, engineering, and healthcare. One usage scenario: physicians could remotely manipulate surgical equipment positioned in battlefields, disaster sites, or other areas that may be inaccessible. On a more pedestrian level, business users could open and manipulate desktop files with a few simple hand gestures.
"We believe that Kinect can be more than just a great platform for gaming and entertainment," Microsoft said in a statement. "It opens up enormous opportunities that span everything from delivering new personal experiences to addressing societal challenges in the fields of healthcare and education."
The technology has its skeptics, however. Andrew Binstock, executive editor of Dr. Dobb's.com (an InformationWeek sister publication), said it could be years before Kinect-style apps show up in the sorts of scenarios Microsoft envisions or in general business use.
"I expect this SDK has more importance for gaming, sporting and recreation, and scientific communities, where the ability to respond to whole body movements has immediate application. Eventually, I expect commercial applications will appear for it, but not immediately," said Binstock.
Still, Microsoft is moving aggressively to put the full power of Kinect into commercial developers' hands. The Kinect for Windows SDK, which will be available within the next several weeks (Microsoft did not provide a specific release date), gives ISVs the ability to create apps that leverage Kinect's most advanced capabilities, including sound localization, depth and distance interpretation, skeletal tracking, and advanced audio processing.
Microsoft hopes that the promise of hands-free interaction, along with advances in 3D technology, will lend a new lease on life to Windows PCs, which, for all the bells and whistles Microsoft has added with new OS releases, have changed very little in the past decade in terms of their basic capabilities.
"We believe the combined creativity of Microsoft and the academic research and enthusiast communities will lead to new experiences that will transform our relationship with computers," Microsoft said.