What Microsoft may be up to with the next Kinect

Microsoft Xbox One Kinect

Microsoft may have led the charge in gesture and voice recognition in the home with Kinect, but the competition is coming fast.

And given the growth in this market—user interface is expected to top $25 billion by 2016, according to Visiongain—there's no shortage of interest in what the company may announce at its Microsoft Build event in April, where the company is expected to focus in part on Kinect 2.0 for Windows.

The company isn't talking for now, but some hints can be found in what the competition is working on.

For example? The use of human senses, like voice and motion, to improve user interactions with technology. At CES, Intel introduced a new family of devices using what it calls RealSense, which lets users interact with computers in a way reminiscent of the film "Minority Report."

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"For decades, people have had to learn new languages, techniques and commands to get our devices to do what we want," Mooly Eden, senior vice president, general manager of the Perceptual Computing Group said at Intel's CES press conference.

"Our vision with Intel RealSense technology is to reverse that, and make our devices learn and understand us. By equipping them with technologies that mimic human senses in a more genuine way, our everyday experiences such as learning, communication and gaming are transformed; and entirely new ones are possible."

Also in the mix? Samsung, which has included gesture and voice recognition in its high-end TV sets for the past few years, and Apple, which last November acquired PrimeSense, the Israeli motion sensor company behind the technology powering Microsoft's Kinect sensor for the Xbox.

Kinect, in many ways, was a trailblazer in the natural interface world. Hackers and developers quickly expanded its voice and gesture recognition abilities beyond the game world. A Spanish company called Tedesys, for example, lets doctors use the device to call up X-rays and other information without having to introduce any potentially nonsterile objects into the operating room.

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And Microsoft launched a pilot program, giving businesses (including Toyota, book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and design firm Razorfish) the tools to develop customized applications for their companies and industries.

Now, with the second generation of Kinect on the market, it's threatening to break through even further.

"There are aspects of this technology that are more important for consumer and enterprise [uses] than there are for gaming, but gaming has long been a test bed for broader technology," notes Billy Pidgeon, an independent market research analyst. "Gaming is where a lot of new tech is developed. Gamers have a lot more patience for reinstalling drivers and things like that. 'Regular' people won't put up with that."

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With the release of the Xbox One in November, Microsoft unveiled a vastly improved Kinect, with better fidelity, IR technology (letting the device "see" in the dark) and biometric scanning. To date, though, there hasn't been a lot of formal chatter from the company (or even the hacker world) on utilizing the technology in other fields.

That's likely to change, though, at Microsoft's Build event. Microsoft sent developer kits to thousands of programmers in late 2013. (The final product will release this summer.)

What are they working on? So far, no one's saying—but it's easy to see how speech technology could be incorporated into making homes more intelligent or how the biometric identification could be used for security features—or to call up relevant information about a person for their doctor or other professional.

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Complicating things is the fact that Kinect 2.0 faced some stiff criticism on its release, with users complaining about the spotty reliability of voice commands, a key component.

"It's a work in progress and it's going to take some time," says Pidgeon. "But I'd be surprised if the stuff that's baked into Kinect doesn't have broader uses. It would be bad strategy if they weren't looking at using that in other venues."

By Chris Morris, Special to