Microsoft Girds for Battle Over Motion Control

With the threat of smaller, cheaper start-up efforts looming, Microsoft is pulling back the curtain on the future of its Kinect motion controller.

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With the threat of smaller, cheaper start-up efforts looming, Microsoft is pulling back the curtain on the future of its Kinect motion controller.

In a video, Microsoft demonstrates hand and finger tracking with current Kinect hardware, going beyond the basic skeletal tracking that’s available today. That could open up new uses, such as the ability to simulate a mouse click or button push with only a hand gesture. The Verge also reports that Microsoft is working on displays with Kinect built right in, possibly allowing users to control Windows PCs with the wave of a hand.

It doesn’t seem like Microsoft is moving quickly, though. Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s senior advisor to CEO Steve Ballmer, told The Verge that integrating Kinect with tablet-sized PCs was still a “dream,” and not something that’s going to happen overnight. Along with miniaturization and other challenges, Microsoft wants to figure out how to make Kinect’s infrared camera work better in sunlight and other environments. It’s also unclear when hand tracking will be available for existing Kinect users, if ever. (Update: The Verge reports that a software development kit is due in the “coming weeks” for PC only.)

Meanwhile, smaller companies are cooking up their own motion controllers, which in many ways seem better-suited for productivity and other PC-related uses. The most well-known is Leap Motion, which can detect subtle finger movements in three dimensions. The $80 device starts shipping on May 13, and will have its own app store at launch. Asus, a PC maker, plans to start embedding Leap’s technology in its high-end notebooks and all-in-one PCs later this year.

I’m also interested in Thalmic Labs’ MYO, an armband that senses motions through the electrical activity in your muscles. Unlike Leap, I haven’t actually seen MYO up close–at the moment a short video is the only solid evidence of the product’s existence–but it does seem like a smart way to address both PC and home entertainment uses in a single device.

Microsoft currently sells a version of Kinect for Windows PCs, which is designed to work at closer range than the Xbox 360 version. But at $250, it’s more than twice as expensive, and users are pretty much on their own for finding supported applications because Microsoft doesn’t offer any sort of Kinect-specific app store. Not surprisingly, the Windows version of Kinect hasn’t become a phenomenon like its game console counterpart. In fact, Microsoft mainly pitches it as a tool for education, health care, retail and other industries.

Microsoft still has time to catch up with a more consumer-friendly product. These are early days for motion control on PCs, and ultimately Microsoft has the advantage of controlling the operating system. If the company ever started offering Kinect-enabled apps directly through the Windows Store, it would really help motion control go mainstream.

But that’s not going to happen without cheaper, smaller and more capable hardware. It seems that Microsoft is getting there, but when it does, it’ll already have lots of competition.