LAS VEGAS--Microsoft had some fun while offering up details of the software development kit for Kinect for Windows. A technology evangelist named Clint Rutkas jury-rigged a lounge chair with wheels, wiring, and a Kinect motion-sensing controller for the company's Xbox 360 game console. Then, using just hand gestures, he drove the chair onto the stage at Mix11, Microsoft's annual Web and mobile phone developer conference.
The Kinect SDK, though, may wind up leading to a business that's anything but trivial. The kit will give software developers tools to create applications that use motion-sensing and hand gestures. And Microsoft expects developers to come up with ideas that could generate huge paydays.
Think about running a meeting and moving through presentation with hand gestures, instead of a handheld clicker. Or maybe a device for conference video calls that knows to shift camera angles for different speakers. And there's little doubt Microsoft will come up with applications inside products such as Office.
If developers embrace the technology and come up with clever and useful creations, Microsoft stands to gain. And maybe it stands to gain a lot.
"I think it could be a meaningful business," said Anoop Gupta, a distinguished scientist in Microsoft Research who is overseeing the project. And a meaningful business for Microsoft, which generated $62.5 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, generally has a few commas in it.
That's because Microsoft would license the technology to enable so-called natural user interfaces. Software developers would likely pay Microsoft a fee to build applications that use the Kinect technology. And computer screen monitor makers would likely pay a licensing fee, too, to put the Kinect technology in their products.
"There's both the hardware and the software opportunity," Gupta said.
And he knows a bit about building those businesses. From 2003 to 2007, Gupta built and led Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, running Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Office Communications Server, and Microsoft Office Live Meeting.
It's taken Microsoft some time to embrace developers using the Kinect for something other than Xbox gaming. When hackers first created applications, Microsoft was ambivalent at best. It mostly looked the other way, though Gupta said it was because the company was heads down on selling the device to gamers.
Initially, Microsoft won't encourage commercial applications for Kinect. The software giant will release the SDK later this spring, but only on a noncommercial basis. That means developers can't use it for projects that they want to sell. That probably limits it to academics and enthusiasts, many of whom have already come up with creative hacks in the absence of an official SDK from Microsoft.
And what happens if a developer creates an application that has commercial viability? They do so at their own peril, according to Gupta. "We are not making any promises that the (programming interfaces) will remain the same," Gupta said.
Part of the reason is that Microsoft is trying to figure out how to draw up a commercial SDK license that protects its financial opportunity. "Certainly, that would be one of the considerations," Gupta said.
In the meantime, developers will have to satisfy themselves with ginning up applications more clever than a mobile lounge chair.
Here's a video of me taking the Kinect Drivable Lounge Chair for a spin, with instruction from its creator, Microsoft's Clint Rutkas.