Tales In Tech History: Microsoft Kinect

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Some assume the Kinect is another tale of Microsoft hardware woe, but it was both groundbreaking and innovative

Microsoft’s entry into the video games market surprised a lot of people back in the early 2000s.

After all, Microsoft was an enterprise (and consumer) software provider that in the 30 years prior to that, had rarely deviated into the world of hardware (with the exception of its Microsoft Mouse foray).

So when Microsoft introduced its Xbox gaming console in November 2001, people took notice. And despite the odds, Redmond hit the ground running against the likes of Sony and Nintendo.

Microsoft KinectAdvanced Controller

Since its launch sixteen years ago, the Xbox expanded beyond just being a simple gaming box to include applications and streaming services.

There is also an online service known as Xbox Live that allows for high-definition streaming of movies, TV shows, sporting events and even music (lets just not mention Microsoft’s freshly axed Groove service though shall we?).

But Microsoft realised it had to offer more than just a gaming console, and it was looking to develop cutting tech around the way that people interacted with software.

Its Project Natal device for Xbox 360 was first demonstrated in June 2009, and to many people, it looked like the future of technology. Microsoft then officially launched the Kinect device as an $150 accessory for the Xbox in November 2010.

Kinect was actually pretty advanced at the time, as Microsoft wanted to change the way players interacted with their consoles.

Kinect is (or was) a motion and voice-sensor system that allowed users to control and interact with their console (or indeed PC) without the need for a game controller, via a much more natural user interface (namely gestures and spoken commands).

It included advanced a groundbreaking depth (and infrared) camera, sensors, and a voice recognition microphone to track the player’s body, who could then control games and media using just their body and voice.

You could even plug a Kinect into a PC via the Xbox Kinect USB Adaptor.

This opened the Xbox to different genres of games such as dancing games and eventually niches in the business community and healthcare sectors.

The arrival of Kinect had left Microsoft’s competition scrambling to catch up and launch their own motion detecting devices, which varying degrees of success.

But Microsoft had a lead, and it marketed the device with ferocity. Indeed, it is reported that in November 2010 Microsoft had a $500 million marketing budget and the Kinect’s marketing slogan was “You Are the Controller.”

Indeed, within 60 days of its release, Microsoft sold 8 million Kinects, earning it the Guinness World Record of “fastest-selling consumer device.” Microsoft eventually went on to sell 30 million Kinect units in its lifetime.

This is impressive, as it should be remembered that the Kinect arrived years before the arrival of HoloLens and Virtual Reality headsets.

The Kinect’s camera’s depth-sensing abilities proved to be ahead of its time, and it is only now that many Windows laptops have cameras with facial recognition technology.

And it could be argued that the Kinect also had an influence on the depth-sensing camera on Apple’s iPhone X, for example, which works in much the same way as a Kinect, just on a smaller scale.

Fade Away

But like many of Microsoft’s other hardware forays, the Kinect is no longer with us, and it turned out that (once again) its biggest enemy was Microsoft itself.

Of course, matters were not helped by the lack of games that could exploit the cutting edge technology of the Kinect.

The decline of the Kinect actually started a couple of years after its launch.

In May 2013 Microsoft launched the the Xbox One to succeed the Xbox 360. However, the Kinect never felt like a particularly essential accessory for the Xbox 360, and after a while the novelty wore off when gamers found the the technology wasn’t quite reliable enough, and the games weren’t as good as they could be.

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To make matters worst, Microsoft was locked in a bitter battle with the Sony Playstation, and the Kinect was actually a fairly expensive piece of kit to purchase, especially when considering the limited number of games that could exploit it.

Another problem was the extra processing power that the Kinect demanded and the high cost of the Xbox One with it, meant graphically intensive games struggled to run at the 1080p resolution, and the costly console had consumers turn to Sony’s PlayStation 4 instead.

Consequently, sales of Microsoft’s Xbox One struggled against the Playstation 4, not helped by the fact that by including the Kinect with the console, it inflated the cost of purchasing the Xbox console beyond what most considered reasonable.

Microsoft Kinect

The End

Microsoft eventually stopped bundling the Kinect with the Xbox One, but unfortunately Microsoft’s commitment to the Kinect had begun to wane.

Indeed, when Microsoft removed the Kinect port from the Xbox One S (released in 2016) entirely that it became clear the device’s days were numbered.

This was confirmed last October when Microsoft ended manufacturing of the Kinect.

Then this week Redmond put the final nail in the coffin when it announced that it had discontinued the USB adapter for the Kinect.

Some will mourn the end of the Kinect, but it worth remembering that for now at least, Microsoft is still pushing its ‘mixed reality’ vision of the future.

This mixed reality’ is essentially the combination of augmented and virtual reality, for Windows 10 and its HoloLens headset.