In many ways, Kinect was far ahead of its time when it launched in 2010, but its limitations both for users and developers would come to define it.
The technology was born out of a skunkworks project inside Microsoft’s Xbox team, tasked with envisioning a new future for gaming. This project grew in urgency after Nintendo launched the Wii and up-ended what it meant to sell a games console. With the Wii, the Japanese giant had sidelined typical controllers in favor of wands that mirrored the player’s gestures. Designed to look like friendly, commonplace TV remote controls, the Wii became a staple in gaming and non-gaming households alike.
Microsoft’s response was Project Natal, which used depth-sensing cameras to track gestures. Whereas the Wii could only monitor the movement of one hand, Microsoft could offer full-body skeletal tracking, identifying physical gestures and the tech could even recognize faces. Kinect’s secret sauce leveraged technology by Israeli company PrimeSense. The system used two cameras: One Infra-Red CMOS and a VGA color CMOS, paired with an infra-red projector and a custom chip that mapped the image data into 3D space.
When it launched in 2010, it was a substantial hit, selling 10 million units in its first eight months on sale and winning the Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling gadget. (In total, it sold around 35 million units across its lifespan.) That meant that — at the time — nearly one in five Xbox owners was packing a Kinect, but what about those other four?
Polygon, in its extensive history of Kinect, quoted Xbox Program Manager Richard Irving, who said: “When you made the decision to support the Kinect sensor, you were inherently limiting your audience.”
Nevertheless, a handful of developers built games for Kinect, which was a natural home for music, rhythm and fitness games. Harmonix, makers of Guitar Hero, made Dance Central, while Just Dance makers Ubisoft embraced the platform. Playing a dance game on the Kinect, especially coming from the rough-and-ready one-handed tracking of the Wii, was a revelation.
Microsoft subsequently wanted to assuage developer anxieties and went all-in on Kinect for its next-generation console. 2013’s Xbox One wouldn’t just ship with a Kinect — the console wouldn’t work unless the camera was plugged in. You could wake it with your voice (and, as it turned out, Aaron Paul’s voice), it would recognize your face, and could even detect your heart rate.
But adding a Kinect to the package put Microsoft at a disadvantage against Sony. The Xbox One launched at $500, making the $400 PlayStation 4 a much more affordable rival — and it promptly began outselling Xbox One by nearly two to one. Years later, IGN reported that Sony had planned to bundle its own camera peripheral with the PlayStation 4, but chose to ditch it shortly before launch to undercut Microsoft’s price. By 2014, Microsoft decided to “unbundle” Kinect from the package and knock $100 off the price. That hurt developers like Harmonix that had stayed with the Kinect through its rocky birth just as they launched the big-budget Fantasia: Music Evolved.
For many, Kinect was their first real exposure to a voice-controlled gadget. Yes, some niche devices had existed before, but the Xbox 360’s Kinect predated Siri by a year and Alexa by four years. For all of the anxiety about putting microphones in our homes, Microsoft was doing it well before everyone else.
Kinect also acted as an introduction to something called “Perceptive computing.” As TechCrunch wrote back in 2013, this is a collection of technologies designed to digitize the concept of human intuition, like being able to recognize faces. Kinect helped users acclimate to a world in which our phones and tablets can recognise us by our face, and log us into our devices. And when it worked, this sort of technology really did make us feel like we were living in the future.
After Kinect had faded from the spotlight, PrimeSense’s technology found a new home for itself, after being bought by Apple at the end of 2013. PrimeSense’s sensors were shrunk down and used to build FaceID. From the iPhone 10 onwards, each device essentially packed a tiny Kinect into the notch above their displays. Facial recognition isn’t limited to iOS devices, and is available on plenty of other smartphones, tablets and even PCs thanks to Windows Hello.
Kinect is still around, in a way. Microsoft resurrected Kinect with an Azure-branded version for businesses. It’s already been tested by supermarkets for grab-and-go checkout services, and healthcare companies looking to identify patient falls. Back in September, Microsoft also announced that the technology would also be used to build new 3D cameras for a number of industrial applications. Even if Kinect couldn’t survive alongside the Xbox Series X, there’s a home for its elegant technology in warehouses, VR headsets and even iPhones.