Tom Smith, chief marketing manager for Nissan (7201:JP) North America, planned to unveil the redesigned Pathfinder at the Chicago Auto Show in February. His problem: Although much of the allure of the new Pathfinder is in its upgraded interior, Smith didn’t have the whole car to show off, just a fiberglass shell.
So he turned to Microsoft Kinect, a motion- and voice-sensing device originally meant as an add-on for the Xbox gaming console. In February, Microsoft (MSFT) released a version that works with Windows PCs, as well as tools to help developers create apps for it. Nissan used the $250 device to create a virtual tour of the Pathfinder. Car fans step in front of a Kinect, which tracks their head movements using sensors that gauge distance and recognize objects. A large screen nearby displays what they would see if they were sitting in the car. Look up, and there are the dual moon roofs; look down to check out the legroom. It “truly is a game-changer,” says Smith, adding that Nissan plans to use the demos at its dealerships ahead of the car’s fall arrival.
The original Kinect helped make the Xbox 360 last year’s bestselling game console; Microsoft has sold more than 18 million Kinects since November 2010. It’s also inspired tinkerers to put the device to unanticipated uses, such as guiding robots and doing 3D modeling. With Kinect for Windows, Microsoft aims to coax professional developers and big companies to create apps that make Kinect as essential in the home, office, and showroom as smartphones are to those on the go. “This is a turnaround chance for Microsoft,” says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR). “A chance for them to say this isn’t about video gaming, it isn’t about Windows, it’s about the future of everything.”
Almost 350 companies are working with Microsoft on custom Kinect applications, says Craig Eisler, the general manager of Kinect for Windows. The device is being used in a variety of work settings, from Boeing (BA) sales offices, where it enables virtual tours for 737 customers, to a hospital in Canada, where surgeons use its gesture-recognition ability to swipe through CT scans without the risk of touching germs on a keyboard or mouse.
To encourage developers to create more apps, Microsoft is sponsoring a 13-week Kinect Accelerator program in partnership with TechStars, the program that nurtures young technology companies and provides them with seed money. The Kinect program, which starts in April, received 499 applications for 10 spots, says Dave Malcolm, the former Microsoft manager in charge of the accelerator program. “I’ve been amazed on a daily basis,” he says.
Like Nissan, some of the earliest experimenters are big brands. In mid-March, Bloomingdale’s will install a pod-like dressing room in its Century City store in Los Angeles. Built by Bodymetrics, the pod houses eight Kinect devices arranged in a circle, which will scan a customer’s physique, take measurements, and recommend a pair of jeans. IdentityMine, the advertising agency that built Nissan’s Kinect app, is now working on one for a client in the home-improvement industry. The software will allow a customer at home to scan a room with a Kinect, resulting in a digital 3D model where wall colors and appliances can be virtually tweaked. “You’re not going to see these kinds of experiences running on” iOS or Android, says Mark Brown, co-founder and CEO of IdentityMine.
To go from experiments to ubiquity, the Kinect’s price needs to come down from $250, says Forrester’s McQuivey. It also needs a killer app that will make Kinect a must-have, says Kyle Machulis, a developer working on OpenKinect, an unofficial set of tools for programmers. And it would be helpful if the high-tech hardware fit in a package smaller than its current 11-inch length, so it could more easily be transported and integrated into laptops, says Matt Bell, founder of MatterPort, a startup working on Kinect apps. But according to Forrester’s McQuivey, Microsoft has “already lit a flame, and they just have to absolutely throw the gasoline on it.”