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What's it for ?

At least some of the early adopters of the Kinect were not content just to play games with it. "Kinect hackers" were drawn to the fact that the object affordably synthesizes an arsenal of sophisticated components -- notably, a fancy video camera, a "depth sensor" to capture visual data in three dimensions and a multiarray microphone capable of a similar trick with audio.

Combined with a powerful microchip and software, these capabilities could be put to uses unrelated to the Xbox. Like: enabling a small drone to "see" its surroundings and avoid obstacles; rigging up a 3-D scanner to create small reproductions of most any object (or person); directing the music of a computerized orchestra with conductorlike gestures; remotely controlling a robot to brush a cat's fur. It has been used to make animation, to add striking visual effects to videos, to create an "interactive theme park" in South Korea and to control a P.C. by the movement of your hands (or, in a variation developed by some Japanese researchers, your tongue).

An object that spawns its own commercial ecosystem is a thing to take seriously. Think of what Apple's app store did for the iPhone, or for that matter how software continuously expanded the possibilities of the personal computer. Patent-watching sites report that in recent months, Sony, Apple and Google have all registered plans for gesture-control technologies like the Kinect. But there is disagreement about exactly how the Kinect evolved into an object with such potential. Did Microsoft intentionally create a versatile platform analogous to the app store? Or did outsider tech-artists and hobbyists take what the company thought of as a gaming device and redefine its potential?

This clash of theories illustrates a larger debate about the nature of innovation in the 21st century, and the even larger question of who, exactly, decides what any given object is really for. Does progress flow from a corporate entity's offering a whiz-bang breakthrough embraced by the masses? Or does techno-thing success now depend on the company's acquiescing to the crowd's input? Which vision of an object's meaning wins? The Kinect does not neatly conform to either theory. But in this instance, maybe it's not about whose vision wins; maybe it's about the contest.

At the time -- this was shortly before the 2010 holiday season -- Microsoft's primary Kinect focus was the mainstream game-playing market. Its first response to OpenKinect seemed predictable: CNET reported an unnamed spokesperson declaring that the company "does not condone the modification of its products" and would "work closely with law enforcement . . . to keep Kinect tamper-resistant." Adafruit increased its prize, ultimately to $3,000. Within days a developer in Spain posted videos demonstrating that he made his Kinect work with a P.C. OpenKinect refined and spread the open-source driver code, and a variety of "Kinect hacks," as they came to be called, proliferated in YouTube videos. (An early example involved a Kinect used to create a version of the hand-swipe control contraption Tom Cruise used in "Minority Report.") Soon Watson and his wife, Emily Gobeille, posted their own video, in which her hand movements were captured by a Kinect and translated onto a screen displaying a computer-generated bird figure, which she controlled like a high-tech puppet.

Watson told me this by phone from Amsterdam, where he and Gobeille had just presented a polished version of their creation as an installation at CineKid, an international entertainment festival, for an audience that included Dutch royalty. The specter of a Microsoft-backed "law enforcement" response to projects like his had obviously faded. In fact, shortly after the open-source driver was finished, one of Microsoft's top Kinect people appeared on NPR's "Science Friday" and, in remarks that were widely reproduced across the Web, asserted that OpenKinect participants would "absolutely not" be prosecuted.

In December 2010, Microsoft's partner PrimeSense, an Israeli company that created the Kinect's 3-D depth-sensing chip, released its own set of software drivers and code for the so-called hackers to monkey with. A few months later, Microsoft announced it would release its own code kit. It certainly seemed, as Mashable.com put it, that the company had "done a complete 180 when it comes to hacks."


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