Kinecting the Dots: How Microsoft’s Kinect Could be a Game-Changer

Microsoft’s Kinect (once known as ‘Project Natal‘) could be a game-changing platform, if marketers and developers can connect the dots (pardon the wordplay).  Not only does it provide unique opportunities for gaming and other more traditional forms of entertainment, but it also has high potential to affect commercial areas as diverse as retail, customer loyalty programs, fitness and education–enabled by various forms of augmented reality and social gaming.

What Kinect Does & What Makes it Unique

In an initial ‘Project Natal’ (Kinect) fact sheet released in May 2009, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) describes what differentiates its functionality:

  • Controller-free gaming and entertainment. “Project Natal” provides a whole new way to play — no controller required. It uses a sensor to track your body movement and recognize your face, even listen to your voice. If you know how to move your hands, shake your hips, or speak, you and your friends will be able to jump instantly into any “Project Natal” experience.
  • Full-body play. “Project Natal” provides a new way to play where you use all parts of your body — head, hands, feet and torso. With controller-free gaming you don’t just control the superhero, you are the superhero. Full-body tracking allows the “Project Natal” sensor to capture every move, from head to toe, to give players a full-body gaming experience.
  • Personalized play. “Project Natal” provides an in-game experience in which the player’s face and voice are recognized. Greet and speak to characters in the game, or simply step into view of the sensor to log into Xbox LIVE and connect with friends. Only “Project Natal” is smart enough to remember voices and faces. Fun has never been so personalized.
  • Off-the-couch play. “Project Natal” provides gameplay that gets you off the couch, on your feet and in the fun. Each “Project Natal” experience is designed to get players moving, laughing, cheering and playing together. “Project Natal” makes social gaming off-the-couch fun.
  • Easy-to-play fun. “Project Natal” makes sharing in the fun a snap. Talk or watch a movie in the same living room or on the other side of the world — no headset, no keyboard and no controllers required. It’s just you, your friends, your family and a whole new way to play.

Controller-free interaction already places Kinect a cut above Nintendo’s (NTDOY) wildly popular Wii gaming system–and Sony’s (NYSE: SNE) soon-to-be released Move controller apparatus for Playstation 3.

Beyond not needing a controller, the platform’s ability to recognize a person’s entire body — face included —and voice creates a whole new level of identification between the user and her virtual persona. On top of recognizing you, it remembers you, allowing for easy recollection of checkpoints and check-ins (a hint of what’s to come in the article!).

Seeing the Kinections

Now that you know what it does, let’s consider some of its potential applications.

  • Retail: Zugara’s webcam social shopper cracked the door open to the possibility of a camera-based virtual retail experience. Despite its efforts, however, its inability to gauge size and body type of the user makes the experience somewhat useless, in terms of how the item actually fits. With its ability to recognize all parts and angles of a person’s body and gauge depth perception, the Kinect platform kicks the door wide open not only to virtual experiences in clothing retail, but also to head-focused retail like cosmetics and glasses.
  • Customer Loyalty Programs: Mark Cuban’s recent suggestion of ‘checking-in’ via facial recognition (by a company he recently purchased, of course) is a step in the right direction. Even separated from services like foursquare or gowalla, the notion of ‘checking in’ — particularly, by facial recognition — can dramatically impact how businesses run their customer loyalty programs. For small businesses, Kinect and Xbox 360 could provide a relatively inexpensive platform to deploy this type of model. But, using such a system would naturally depend on customers’ privacy thresholds for being recognized whenever they enter a store.
  • Fitness: For Wii users, using motion-sensitive gaming is a foregone conclusion. For Kinect users, the experience will be that much better, largely due to enhanced sensitivity to users’ actual physical bodies, not a controller’s relative position to where it was moments before. This leads to my next point.
  • Education: Training programs that require physical movement — e.g., sports training, physical therapies and some forms of art — could be greatly enabled by Kinect’s platform. Not only that–they could be social, and people could participate in programs ‘alongside’ friends and other users from around the world, allowing interactions among those who are learning in real-time.

While I briefly discussed some broad applications, there are certainly more, and I’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments section! Enjoy this video demo of Kinect from CNN!

Steven Duque is the author of Living in the Future.

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