Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Kinect On PC - Now To Be Official

A few months ago, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 motion control entry into gaming, the Kinect, was hacked and custom coded drivers developed which enabled it to run on the PC. So far, some of the homebrew demonstrations have been even more technically accomplished than much of the official software for the device, with a 3D webcam and competent FPS controls being the highlights.

However, the Kinect was never really hacked as such. The device has always been ‘open’ as it were, only requiring creation of software drivers in order for it to work on other platforms. Plugging it into the PC for example, and you can use it as a basic webcam with relative ease.

In addition, much of the custom software solutions using Kinect on the PC have been using a depth buffer with four times the resolution than on commercial games. The Kinect’s official depth buffer spec indicates it to be 320x240 in size, whereas the actual hardware is capable of producing 640x480’s worth of depth information. This means that some homebrew applications have features significantly more advanced – if not incomplete and more rough around the edges – than the intial batch of Kinect games.

Seeing as the hardware is actually capable of working around its original PrimeSense spec – all the functionality and tech is there – signs point to Microsoft’s software API restricting the device’s full use. In particular, the resolution of the depth buffer, maybe due to the additional amount of processing workload it would have on the 360’s CPU. However, MS has also stated, that in time, via software updates from Xbox Live, that the Kinect will see more of its potential unlocked – I.E: developer support or using full-size depth buffers.

But ultimately, all this is already possible now, albeit via homebrew software applications on the PC. Although, that is all about to change if fresh rumours are to be believed.

Previously MS have commented on the Kinect hack as being expected, even welcome. That they didn’t have any plans to restrict the tech, and were instead looking to broaden its use beyond the confines of the Xbox 360 and into a wider market – into the PC space. Now, that seems to be closer to becoming a reality. A new report – via WinRumours - clams that in the next few months, MS will themselves reveal an official Kinect software development kit (SDK), along with driver support for Windows-based PCs.

Interestingly, Microsoft’s next operating system, Windows 8, will feature gesture-based control in addition to traditional mouse and keyboard support. Perhaps making Kinect an open-platform device was part of that plan from the beginning. Certainly, some of the impressive user-coded demos show that there is much potential for it to be used in the way MS are hinting at... and more. Whilst pointer support is let down with lack of precision and high latency, a simpler gesture-based solution, maybe using more complicated tracking for only specific functions, would be an ideal starting point.

Also, on the gaming side of things, Kinect’s implementation on the PC could well show us a small glimpse of the future regarding the technology. Without being held back by the 360’s aging CPU spec, and instead opened up by the possibilities of high-end PC hardware, we could see far more in the way of advanced tracking with considerably more accuracy, but with a minimum amount of lag – only slightly more than Kinect’s USB data transfer limitation.

The prospects behind this, and indeed unofficial Kinect applications, are particularly intriguing, given just what appears to be possible. And with a full MS SDK only a few months away, we shouldn’t have to wait long before some of the more originally elaborate ideas envisioned for the device to come to fruition.