'Minority Report' technology is just a game -- for now
Kinect and other human interface technologies have real-world potential
During a recent meeting at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., company representatives demonstrated Kinect, a device that lets people interact with the Microsoft Xbox 360 game console by using only bodily gestures and voice commands. With Kinect, you are the joystick.
The system does not depend on a manual controller; instead Kinect’s webcam console relays user commands by reading infrared-like beams ricocheting off the body of the player or subject. Lunge to the right, and your avatar might be diving for a volleyball; jump up and down, and you might be pogoing around a dance hall with a beautiful android. In the corridors of the conference, a good time was had by all.
It wasn’t until a further demo during a business presentation that potential future uses of the hands-free device became more clear. Shifting from the beach to a conference room setting, Kinect was used to facilitate a talk in which a presenter used hand gestures and voice commands to sweep documents from one place to another on a huge screen on a wall, then brush them away or delete them altogether.
The application was described as “Minority Report”-style technology, a reference to the 2002 Stephen Spielberg movie in which a futuristic police force uses Kinect-like tools to assemble multimedia dossiers on crime suspects — before they committed the crime. In doing so, the police grab documents, data points and video seemingly from midair.
In 2050, according to the plotline, data is everywhere; access is universal; and keyboards, pointers, controllers — all input devices — have been reduced to gestures or voice commands.
Although it’s a long way from the world of "Minority Report" and other forms of the Internet-enabled body, including retinal controllers and wearable robotics, the demo pointed toward potential benefits of such technology, especially in the realm of public safety and health care.
Only last month, a team of doctors in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre used a Kinect video game sensor during cancer surgery to view critical patient imagery. They hooked up Kinect to their own computer, allowing the surgeon to view scans of the patient by making gestures, without having to leave the sterile arena of the operating theater.
The natural interface might also be used to support training exercises where finely prescribed movements must be learned, such as in physical conditioning or learning medical, surgical or therapeutic techniques. Finally, Kinect-like technology might be useful as an authentication system. Because it recognizes personal gestures, it could provide a unique method of identifying people seeking permissions to access classified or secret offices and documents.
Other designers are researching possible applications of Kinect that go beyond playing games. Oliver Kreylos, a researcher at the University of California at Davis, has adopted the technology to improve live 3-D videoconferencing, which has attracted attention from NASA. And Alexandre Alahi from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has done work on a video surveillance system that uses Kinect devices to track groups of people in complete darkness.
Although it might be decades before such systems become commonplace, the pace of innovation on Kinect and other human interface technologies is clear. And it is yet another sign that the computing and IT communities are in the midst of a creativity boom, where what is only a game one day can become a game changer the next.