Mundie: Microsoft's research depth enabled Kinect

He said that few other companies have the capability to build something like it

Microsoft demonstrates Kinect.

Microsoft demonstrates Kinect.

Few companies have the research depth to build something like Kinect, Microsoft's forthcoming Xbox add-on that allows a user to control a game through body movements -- in fact, Microsoft itself initially thought it would be impossible, its top research executive said Thursday.

Microsoft came up with the concept behind Kinect after the Wii proved there is a gaming segment beyond the traditional young male, said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, speaking at the company's annual analyst day. The company sought to advance the Wii idea by getting rid of the controller completely, he said.

People in the Xbox business unit researched the concept and determined it couldn't be done, he said. "They concluded it was impossible. It wasn't going to work," he said.

But then they decided to approach workers in Microsoft's research arm. Researchers there in a wide array of fields including depth sensing, machine learning, speech recognition, gestural interface, computer vision, identity recognition, sound processing and parallel computing got together to build what is now known as Kinect.

"To build this product, you had to have all of them," Mundie said. Few if any other companies are likely to have researchers in all of those fields, he said.

Microsoft will have gone, in three years, from "impossible to shipping" when it starts sending out Kinects, Mundie said. The Kinect will be available in early November, he said.

The 3-D sensing technology for Kinect comes from the Israeli chip-design startup PrimeSense. The technology senses a user's movements, such as a kick, jump or punch. PrimeSense is supplying the chips for Kinect, which had been called "Project Natal" during research and development, as well as licensing the reference design for the 3D sensor.

The concept behind Kinect has applications beyond gaming, Mundie noted. "It portends a revolution in the way people will interact with computers," Mundie said.

But Kinect is only one half of the puzzle. While it handles natural user interface on the input side, computers will also need a natural interface on the output side. To display a combination of the two, Mundie showed a video clip of a research product the company has been working on. It showed a woman speaking with an avatar of a nurse on a computer about her son's illness. The woman and the avatar interacted as a patient might talk to a nurse.

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