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Mendhro: Avatar Kinect's Invisible Technology

Umaimah Mendhro|Microsoft Senior Product Manager

If you think back to just five years ago, most of us viewed computers primarily as a tool to get something done. Today, however, capabilities such as gesture, voice, and touch interfaces are laying the foundations of entirely new and exciting experiences.

When our team at Microsoft developed Kinect for Xbox 360, one of our mottos was “Jump In.” Kinect for Xbox 360 brings games and entertainment to life in extraordinary new ways, no controller required. Simply step in front of the sensor and Kinect recognizes you and responds to your gestures. When my mother saw me beta testing “Kinect Sports” in our living room, she was intrigued enough to start playing table tennis with me. She expected to need to learn how to play, but soon realized all she had to do was play as she would in real life. Xbox would “learn” for her and translate her movements into great serves and shots in the game.

Ten days later, the same scene was repeated with my five-year-old nephew. I think this scenario played out in the homes of many of the 10 million consumers around the world who now own Kinect. There’s where the computer gaming industry can take technology next.

One of the new developments on Xbox is Avatar Kinect, first announced by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at CES in January. Using the power of Kinect, Avatar Kinect captures your facial expressions and gestures. When you smile, raise your eyebrows, or nod your head, your avatar does the same in real-time. You can bring together up to seven of your friends located anywhere in the world where Xbox LIVE is available, transport yourself into creative, virtual 3D environments, and record animated videos that you can share with friends or the world. With Avatar Kinect, anyone can create an animated message or show — no computer graphics, animation, or film production skills required.

Maria Bartiromo took Avatar Kinect for a spin this week on a special segment on CNBC Wall Street Journal Report. We loved seeing Maria conduct part of her interview with Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s Chief Research and Strategy Officer, as her avatar, with some cool gold earrings she picked out from the Avatar Marketplace (great choice, Maria!) before she dashed onto Avatar Kinect’s virtual News stage.

Some examples of how to use Avatar Kinect: social networkers who want to engage with their followers in fun, creative ways, a group of friends who want to brag about their favorite sports team after a game, or an aunt who wants to send a custom birthday greeting message to her niece, Avatar Kinect opens up a world of creativity and social interactivity for everyone in a fun, safe, and natural way.

Maria Bartiromo's & Xbox Avatar Kinect

Avatar Kinect becomes available later this month. As we developed it over three years, we worked on developing algorithms for facial expressions and making sure the computer vision could work with Kinect hardware and in a variety of real-world living room conditions. A concept was converted into a product that will soon be available as part of Kinect Fun Labs, a destination for all the fun, new advances in Kinect technology.

I can imagine a future in which gaming and online social experiences feel deeply immersive and natural. I get very excited about the possibility of game developers using a technology like this to render a player’s expression on their in-game character so that the game player almost becomes their character – or influence gameplay through player expressions. And that’s not to mention the immense and creative variety of other applications and implementations that the developer community may dreamed of. I’m looking forward to that day in the not-so-distant future when technology becomes so advanced and powerful, that it becomes invisible.


Umaimah Mendhro is a Senior Product Manager at Microsoft.

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