Two Years of Kinect

As we approach the second anniversary of the release of the Kinect sensor, it seems appropriate to take inventory of how far we have come. Over the past two months, I have had the privilege of being introduced to several Kinect-based tools and demos that exemplify the potential of the Kinect and provide an indication of where the technology is headed.

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One of my favorites is a startup in San Francisco called 3Gear Systems. 3Gear have conquered the problem of precise finger detection by using dual Kinects. Whereas the original Kinect was very much a full-body sensor intended for bodies up to twelve feet away from the camera, 3Gear have made the Kinect into a more intimate device. The user can pick up digital objects in 3D space, move them, rotate them, and even draw free hand with her finger. The accuracy is amazing. The founders, Robert Wang, Chris Twigg and Kenrick Kin, have just recently released a beta of their finger-precise gesture detection SDK for developers to try out and instructions on purchasing and assembling a rig to take advantage of their software. Here’s a video demonstrating their setup and the amazing things you will be able to do with it.

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Mastering the technology is only half the story, however. Oblong Industries has for several years been designing the correct gestures to use in a post-touch world. This TED Talk by John Underkoffler, Oblong’s Chief Scientist, demonstrates their g-speak technology using gloves to enable precision gesturing. Lately they’ve taken off the gloves in order to accomplish similar interactions using Kinect and Xtion sensors. The difficulty, of course, is that gestural languages can have accents just as spoken languages do. Different people perform the same gesture in different ways. On top of this, interaction gestures should feel intuitive or, at least, be easy for users to discover and master. Oblong’s extensive experience with gestural interfaces has aided them greatly in overcoming these types of hurdles and identifying the sorts of gestures that work broadly.

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The advent of the Kinect is also having a large impact on independent film makers.  While increasingly powerful software has allowed indies to do things in post-production that, five years ago, were solely the provenance of companies like ILM, the Kinect is finally opening up the possibility of doing motion capture on the cheap.  Few have done more than Jasper Brekelmans to help make this possible.  His Kinect Pro Face software, currently sold for $99 USD, allows live streaming of Kinect face tracking data straight into 3D modeling sofrtware.  This data can then be mapped to 3D models to allow for realtime digital puppetry. 

Kinect Pro Face is just one approach to translating and storing the data streams coming out of the Kinect device.  Another approach is being spearheaded by my friend Joshua Blake at Infostrat.  His company’s PointStreamer software treats the video, depth and audio feeds like any other camera, compressing the data for subsequent playback.  PointStreamer’s preferred playback mode is through point clouds which project color data onto 3D space generated using the depth data.  These point cloud playbacks can then be rotated in space, scrubbed in time, and generally distorted in any way we like.  This alpha-stage technology demonstrates the possibility of one day recording everything in pseudo-3D.

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