The Future Shows Up in Our Living Room
[Note: Most of this column appeared in the recent Shift Age Newsletter #9, you can access the Archive and sign up for free subscription available here ]
Sometimes a new product will come to market that completely alters how we view the world, changing the landscape of possibility and making us see future possibilities. Whether it was the first time we listened to the radio a 100 years ago, the first time we saw a television 60 years ago, or the first time we saw someone using a cell phone 25 years ago, we immediately sensed that these technologies would alter our lives and change our parameters of reality. The Kinect controller from Microsoft is one of those products that opens the door to the future.
Kinect introduces motion capture to the general population. Motion capture reads how we move in real space and translates those movements into images on a screen. This technology has of course been used for years in movies and video games to capture and replicate human movement. It is one of the reasons video games have become so vibrantly real, with computer animation that makes humans ever more realistic. Now, for $150, this new technology enters our homes.
Kinect connects to the Xbox and can quickly be programmed to capture the movements of people standing in front of it. It can also be controlled by pointing in the air and by voice recognition. One can play sports games, learn to dance, have a workout, and see the computer-generated image of oneself moving on the screen. Kinect can map individuals so that you will be referred to by name as your unique movements and physical appearance are captured. Wow, does this feel like something from the future or what?
The human interface with technology is ever evolving. Currently, we interface with computers using real or simulated keyboards. That interface is rapidly moving to touch and voice. I often tell audiences that their grandchildren will look at them in amazement and say, “Grandma/Grandpa, you actually used keyboards?” Or more likely, “Grandma, what’s a keyboard?” (If you have a child under the age of 10, show him/her a picture of a rotary phone or a manual typewriter and ask him/her what it is).
Gamers have always used hand controllers to play video games. The last major innovation, the Wii, was a game changer in that it allowed the movement of a hand-held controller to be replicated on the screen. The Kinect eliminates the hand-held controller and makes the movements of the body the controller. This is one step closer to living in a virtual world. It is also one step closer to living in a high-touch/high-tech environment. The Kinect makes it easier for all to see a future where a lot of our functional interfaces –
such as opening a “lock,” changing the thermostat or turning on an appliance – will be completely different experiences from what they are now.
We live in a world of two realities: the physical reality of our parents and in which we grew up, and the ever-developing screen reality. Think of the word “friend.” It used to be the description of someone we met. In childhood, that meant kids on our block or the kids we went to school with. In adulthood, it was those we befriended in our professional or recreational lives. Those “real” friends still exist, but now we might have “friends,” thanks to Facebook, who we have never met in physical reality. These two realities – the physical and the screen – are now beginning to merge. This means that as we get ever more high tech, we get ever more high touch, though the definition of touch is being expanded daily.
The Kinect shows the way to this melding of realities. It does have limitations. All highly innovative products do. In a matter of two to three years, it will be looked back upon as a crude initial first step as technological innovations come cascading into our living rooms. That said, it is the first step, the first mass product that opens another door into a future that would be unimaginable even five years ago.
As with any other “next step” technology, it will be used in many different ways by tinkerers, inventors and artists that will be largely outside of purely playing the games made for Kinect. Microsoft has created a gaming system that will be used in ways not expected by the company. They have launched a technology that will go way beyond the playing of games. They should embrace this and continue to expand on the Kinect technology beyond gaming. Another door to remarkable innovation and the human technology interface has been opened.
Welcome to the future!