A handful of prototype laptops spotted at CES with Microsoft's Kinect hardware built in are currently generating some serious buzz.
Originally a hardware add-on for the Xbox 360 game console, the Kinect has the potential to be built into a lot of devices, at least those that run Windows. Enterprising hobbyists have already hacked it to work on PCs, and the next step is to take the bulky oversize Webcam hardware and shrink it down so it fits inside a laptop, with no external hardware required.
The Daily originally pointed out these prototypes, and described them as follows: "The devices, which at first glance appear to be Asus Netbooks running Windows 8, feature an array of small sensors stretching over the top of the screen where the Webcam would normally be. At the bottom of the display is a set of what appear to be LEDs."
My colleague Scott Stein was aptly dubious: "The real question here is, who's going to use this?" he wrote recently, adding, "Based on my experiences with Kinect, accuracy could be an issue for fine movement controls such as video editing (or, any sort of virtual touch-pad analog)."
I'll take it one step further. This is not the first time we've seen an attempt to incorporate serious motion control into a laptop. The last big push in a consumer product that was available on store shelves was the Toshiba Qosmio G55, a desktop replacement laptop we reviewed in 2008.
I recall seeing the G55 demoed behind closed doors by Toshiba at CES earlier that year. The motion control software, which used the system's built-in Webcam and a list of hand gestures to act as media controls, seemed to have potential, but clearly wasn't quite fully cooked--a fact lost to no one in the room at the time.
When the final system was released later that year, the motion controls were disappointingly no better. In my review of the Toshiba Qosmio G55, I said:
The gesture controls work by using the built-in Webcam to detect hand movements. The controls work specifically in a handful of media programs, including Windows Media Center and Toshiba's proprietary media player. You have to sit 3 to 10 feet away from the laptop and hold up your hand (there's a menu setting for left- or right-hand preference). At its most basic level, holding a hand up, palm facing the screen, will start and stop playback. That works about 70 percent of the time, just shy of being actually useful. By holding up a closed fist, one can move a cursor around like a mouse pointer, raising and lowering the thumb to left-click on any icon or window. That part of the gesture control system is much trickier, and at least in this initial version, will be more frustrating than helpful.
In hindsight, my description was overly generous, if anything. You can see some of the gestures demonstrated in the First Look video for the review (jump to 1:10 in to see some gesturing).
Toshiba Qosmio G55
Needless to say, this was the first and last laptop we saw with this gesture control system built in. Aside from facial recognition software, now common in many laptops (but still a bit unreliable), there have been few, if any, attempts to work new and more-useful camera controls into laptops.
Would a Kinect camera in a laptop work better? Undoubtedly, but that's setting the bar very low. Kinect for Xbox works well, but is easily hamstrung by small apartments, poor lighting, or much more often, badly designed games that have terrible gesture recognition.
If some company actually puts out a Kinect-powered laptop, I'll be the first in line to review it--but with some serious skepticism about how the two elements will work together.