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Cracking Kinect: the Xbox One's new sensor could be a hardware hacker's dream

Cracking Kinect: the Xbox One's new sensor could be a hardware hacker's dream

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Will a higher-resolution camera lead to more inventive DIY creations?

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Kinect Xbox One 560
Kinect Xbox One 560

One of the biggest upgrades to Microsoft's recently unveiled Xbox One console is the new and improved Kinect: the device now features a higher fidelity sensor, a larger field of view compared to the original, and better skeletal tracking. This could have some potentially cool applications when it comes to watching TV on your console or playing games, but, like the original Kinect, the most exciting new ideas will likely come from outside of Microsoft and traditional game developers. The hackability of the original Kinect created a healthy DIY movement, and while it's too early to tell if the new version will do the same, there are definitely plenty of possibilities — especially with the recently announced Kinect for Windows launching sometime next year. But will the new Kinect be as open to developers as the original?

Will the new Kinect be as open to developers as the original?

Much of the possibility stems from the higher-resolution camera built into the new Kinect. It utilizes a Microsoft technology dubbed "Time of Flight," which, according to the company, can measure "the time it takes individual photons to rebound off an object or person to create unprecedented accuracy and precision." In our time with the device, it could tell not only that you were moving a thumb, but which way that thumb was facing.

"The ability to measure minute movements of fingers / toes makes for some really nice possibilities for interaction," says new media artist and game designer Matt Parker. And according to Oliver Kreylos, a virtual reality researcher at the University of California, Davis, "it might just be enough to push the Kinect 2 into reliable 3D finger detection, which would open up a large new application area. 3D finger and head tracking are the most important things for me, and Kinect 1 just didn't support them well enough." On his blog, Kreylos calls the new tech "kind of a big deal."

According to music producer and Kinect hacker Chris Vik, the ability to detect individual finger movement could solve one of his biggest problems with the original sensor. "The main issue I have with using motion capture as a controller at the moment is that there are no buttons; there's no way to tell the system that you now intend to control something. There's no trigger," he tells The Verge. "If the new Kinect can successfully detect touching your index finger to your thumb, then gestural control will be much less flaky and awkward to use. This is the reason touchscreen interaction works so well, because you choose when you touch the screen to control it." One of Vik's more recent Kinect projects involved using the device to control an 83-year-old, four-story-tall organ in Melbourne.

"It might just be enough to push the Kinect 2 into reliable 3D finger detection."

In addition to opening up new ideas for creators, it should also help improve existing projects. Ubi Interactive is a startup in Munich that's developing a Kinect-based virtual touchscreen using a projector. Though it's still in development, early reports have praised its responsiveness, and Microsoft even awarded Ubi $20,000 as part of its Kinect Accelerator program. With the improved sensor, it could be even better. "Though we do not know the exact details on the resolution and added precision of the depth-image stream," says Ubi co-founder and CEO Anup Chathoth, "any improvement in this regard will help us a lot in improving the precision." He also cites features like decreased latency and the wider angle of vision as likely improvements.

Aside from the increased precision, Kinect hackers could also benefit from the new active-infrared features in the device, which Microsoft claims can work in "nearly any" lighting condition. "This will offer developers better built-in recognition capabilities in different real-world settings," the company claims. If it works as advertised, this could potentially bring Kinect creations into new spaces. "One huge limit in designing with Kinect was the inability to have games / experiences played in sunlight, and a number of other issues being in situations where the lights throw enough IR light to confuse the Kinect," says Parker, whose work includes a number of large-scale installation pieces.

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The big question is whether or not the new Kinect will be as open a platform as the old. Unlike the original, the new Kinect won't be sold separately initially, instead being bundled with each and every Xbox One console. For now, Microsoft is keeping quiet about the new device's DIY potential, though details about the software development kit are expected next month at the company's BUILD 2013 event. "We'll share details about how developers and designers can begin to prepare to adopt these new technologies so that their apps and experiences are ready for general availability next year," wrote Bob Heddle, director of Kinect for Windows. We reached out to Microsoft about its plans but have yet to hear back as of this time.

"This is going to be a better tool for experimentation and creative applications."

In the meantime, developers are excited about the prospects, and cautiously optimistic that Microsoft will be as open as it was last time around. "There's no question that more advanced technology like this is going to be a better tool for experimentation and creative applications," says Vik. "The question is just how Microsoft intend to approach the political side of things after they were slow to react to people ‘hacking' the original Kinect."

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