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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.

This strikes me as weird on two counts. First, Microsoft is a software company. Why didn't it make software for Kinect for Windows, at least to demonstrate basic control of the Windows 8 user interface?

Second, why ignore the consumer market for Kinect -- especially since the Surface Tablet and Windows 8 are struggling to stand out as superior to alternatives from Apple and Google?

How Microsoft blew it

Microsoft had a five-year head start. The technology behind Kinect was originally invented in 2005. It took the company five years to move from invention to a fully ready-for-prime-time consumer product.

Kinect for Xbox 360 launched to consumers in 2010 with a whopping $500 million advertising budget.

Since then, Microsoft has sold more than 24 million units and has inspired a huge and active community of hobbyists and researchers who do amazing things with the Kinect.

One of my favorite blogs is called Kinect Hacks, which documents some of these projects.

How Leap Motion is making all the right moves

Microsoft shipped a surprisingly mature, polished mass-market consumer product for Xbox in the same year a small company called Leap Motion was quietly founded and funded.

Microsoft started shipping units in the millions at the same time Leap Motion began the long process of taking an idea and developing it into a product.

So what's the difference between Kinect and Leap?

The Kinect for Windows gadget is a plastic thing about the size of a large car rearview mirror that has microphones and cameras that double as sensors, which point away from the screen and at the user.

The Leap, on the other hand, is tiny -- about the size of a standard USB flash drive. It lies flat on the table pointing up, capturing the motion that happens above it.

In general, Leap is optimized for fine detection of fingers and hands, while the Xbox for Windows can detect fingers, hands, arms, body, face and voice.

While there's much that Leap can't do compared to the Kinect, its ability to detect finger and hand movements appears superior in terms of both "resolution" and performance -- judging from the demos I've seen, anyway.

Leap can track up to 10 fingers. And it's very fast -- hand movements almost instantly affect what's on screen.

Leap can recognize when you're holding something, then track the thing you're holding instead of the hand that's controlling it -- essentially turning any object into a kind of Wii controller. You can even tell Leap to track a pencil you're holding in your hand, then write very finely in the air to instantly write on screen.


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