Liberating robots

Players on Microsoft’s Kinect control their games with their own bodies. The same approach may soon apply to robots.

What is changing?
Microsoft’s Kinect has sold an estimated 8 million units since its launch at the end of 2010, far outstripping the company’s own sales targets. The Kinect tracks players’ body movements and uses these to control the game. Within days of its launch there were competitions to create open-source versions for different applications, using the device’s array of cameras, microphones, and the built-in motor. Microsoft having responded strongly initially, with talk of resorting to law enforcement, has since been more relaxed as a variety of adaptations have emerged.

One enthusiast has created 3D representations using 2 Kinects simultaneously; Willow Garage 3D is working on an open source version of a Kinect like robot control; V-Sido is similarly working on what appears to be a Kinect full body robot control. An MIT researcher has ‘mated’ a Kinect with an iRobot to create a robot with spatial awareness.

Why is this important?
Robot technology is moving into almost every aspect of our lives from health care, to restaurants, to classrooms. If we are able to control robots through gesture they may be able to use far more sophisticated movements and appeal more to users who interact with them in. We may be able to control robots directly and more easily, but remotely, in dangerous locations using sophisticated movements for repairs and maintenance or even construction, moving around in space stations or on the moon. Tele-presence representation may use your own personal robot that looks and moves like you in remote meetings.

Microsoft’s seeming volte-face on to sue or not to sue, may also be indicative of the wider move to more open corporate innovation and collaboration, and the potential benefits that can be gained. This pool of unofficial users may well create a range of applications and adaptation that the company’s own official developers did not think of. And given the speed at which the first round appeared, may do it remarkably quickly.

The success of the game console and its growing group of adaptations also indicate the extent to which gaming technology is driving wider areas of technology.

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