For decades, robotics had a fundamental problem: A moving robot must be able to create a map of its environment. The tools for this are known as simultaneous localization and mapping. But the sensors required to have any reasonable accuracy were expensive and bulky, and required massive computing power.
Then Microsoft released the Kinect, a $150 add-on for Xbox 360 that allows players to direct the action in a game simply by moving their bodies. While most people were fascinated by the controller-free interface, roboticists saw something else entirely: an affordable, lightweight camera that could capture 3-D images in real time.
Within weeks of the device's release, YouTube was filled with videos of Kinect-enabled robots. When something is that cheap, it opens up all sorts of possibilities. Now just about anybody can play with robots that have revolutionary functionality.
Microsoft's official response to all this "hacker" activity has gone from hostility to acceptance to vigorous support. They are just about to release a software development kit that makes it easier for anyone to build Windows applications using the Kinect's camera and microphones.
Microsoft is also granting access to the high-powered algorithms that help the machine to recognize individual bodies and track motion, unleashing the kind of power that was previously available with expensive, high-power computers in top-class laboratories. Microsoft is working on a commercial version of its software development kit that will allow entire new businesses to startup using the Kinect's technology.
When Do-it-yourselfers combine those cheap, powerful tools with the collaborative potential of the Internet, they can come up with the kinds of innovations that once came only from big-budget R&D labs. For $150, the Kinect includes some high-powered hardware.
But until now, no company has made it so easy to hack into a product as popular as the Kinect, the fastest-selling consumer-tech product of all time. The Kinect racked up 10 million sales in just four months. That means 10 million people now have fully functioning depth cameras (which measure the distance between the Kinect and objects in front of it) sitting in their living rooms.
Microsoft is giving everybody the tools, and its blessing, to build new applications. "We're trying to usher in a new era of computers, a world of tomorrow" says Xbox general manager of incubation Alex Kipman. He adds that the Kinect's gesture-based interface is an early example of how we will soon interact with all of our computers and appliances.
Now that the drivers were public, every day seemed to bring an exciting new innovation. Everyone is now playing with Kinect and xBox. Watch for major advances and inflection points in robotics technology to emerge with dazzling speed.
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