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How Microsoft lost the future of gesture control

Mike Elgan | April 1, 2013
Microsoft squandered its five-year head start in gesture control technology and is now falling behind. By the time the company gets Kinect for Windows into the consumer market, Leap Motion may already own that market.

Microsoft used to rule the technology world.

Ten years ago, Windows, Office and Internet Explorer were the only "platforms" that really mattered.

Microsoft historically attained its glory by making end user products for the masses, and only later and secondarily going after enterprise and vertical markets.

But the rise of Apple as a consumer electronics company, Google's emergence as an everything company, and the advent of Web 2.0, the cloud and the social Internet have left Microsoft struggling to find a way to succeed in the markets of the future.

There was one shining exception to this trend in the consumer market: Xbox in general and Kinect for Xbox 360 in particular.

Kinect is a top-notch, low-cost in-the-air gesture control interface for Microsoft's console gaming platform that was way ahead of its time and broke the Guinness World Record for the fastest selling-consumer electronics gadget ever.

So when Microsoft later announced a version of Kinect for Windows, everybody (including me) assumed that it would go on to dominate the future of gesture control, and use its dominance as an advantage to regain its lead in the desktop PC market of the future.

But now it looks like Microsoft blew it.

What's wrong with Kinect for Windows?

Microsoft Kinect for Windows sounds like you should be able to use it with a desktop PC, and you can. Unfortunately, the closest you can get to the cameras is 16 inches away, and that's when you put it into a special "Near Mode."

That technical limitation puts the user's head and body farther away from a screen than usual. So right out of the box, it can't be used naturally, as we once expected, as an alternative to a mouse on a PC.

Microsoft doesn't mind, because it isn't really targeting end users like you and me.

Most of the example photos shown on the Microsoft website show Xbox-like distances where the user is across the room or at least five feet away from the Kinect.

These pictures show commercial and retail applications -- a business presentation, a physical therapist, a retail eyeglasses store. Microsoft's Kinect for Windows blog also emphasizes retail applications of the product.

It's possible that Microsoft may eventually market Kinect for Windows to consumers. But so far, it looks like it's not cultivating developers in that market.

Microsoft still hasn't announced commercial availability of Kinect for Windows, though it did release an updated software development kit (SDK) this month.

Right now, Kinect for Windows ships to developers only and doesn't come with software for controlling any interface. If you want to control something, you have to build your own software using the SDK.


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