The first part of my interview with Microsoft user interface guru Bill Buxton ended up being about the back stories of several modern consumer devices, from touch screen phones to smart watches.
The second part focuses on Kinect, the motion-based, controller-less interface that will come to the Xbox 360 this November. Mr. Buxton was only on the fringe of the device's development, but he's clearly excited about what it can do and where the technology will lead.
Did you have anything to do with the development of Kinect?
Only peripherally. When the team was brainstorming concepts at the beginning I would come in and help out. The credit goes to a group of people at our Microsoft research lab in Cambridge, England. They are really high-end computer vision people. They got the 3-D imaging working. There were also folks in the industrial design group. It was a really interesting, spread-out project. They would drop in people like me from time to time to just troubleshoot ideas and help do reality checks.
Has the technology behind Kinect been around for a while? Or is it something completely new that Microsoft Research dreamed up from scratch?
There's a really nice story around that. We can bring together everything we've been talking about in terms of Kinect.
For me the grandparent of Kinect is the door at the supermarket. If you think about it, it's got a one-bit computer, because a computer is just a bunch of switches. When you walk out of the supermarket with your arms full of groceries, the exit door opens automatically. It senses when you're coming. It basically has a proximity sensor. It only opens when you get close. There's an optical vision system, and it's hooked up to that door and it triggers a switch, which is the computer, and it opens the door. And I think you could argue that that is the grandparent of Kinect.
This technology started getting my attention in 1982. I used to work on video games for Mattel. They had something called Intellivision, which was an early game engine. It was the days of Coleco Vision and the first wave of game machines. I flew back to Toronto through Chicago on the redeye at around six in the morning and I can remember staggering into the washrooms at O'Hare Airport when I was changing flights. It was the first time I encountered a washroom where the taps went on and the toilets flushed and the hand blowers went on without ever touching them. I remember thinking: Wow, this is amazing. All of these appliances can sense my presence and what I'm doing and do the right thing without any physical contact. I said to myself these are just switches with sensors. Well, my computer has millions of switches, and none of those switches are as smart as the switches I saw in that washroom.
So that's the precedent.
I worked on the original Amiga 100. It was a great computer with great audio and graphics at the time. This was around 1986 or 1987. And this Toronto company called Very Vivid-they're now called GestureTek- built video games for the Amiga. I worked with them; I was consulting with Commodore at the time. They were working on technology where you could stand in front of games and do very primitive things with 2-D recognition. It was very simple stuff, but it was a precedent for Kinect, too.
Kinect is really neat because it's compact, it's got a 3-D camera, and the quality of the vision and the gesture recognition is just fantastic. It's an evolution.
But here's the kicker: If we had released Kinect 10 years ago it wouldn't have had anywhere near the same impact. It comes back to this larger ecosystem in gaming. There are other things that are really important here besides just the technology.
To start, gaming has moved out of the 12-year-old boy's bedroom-to use the stereotype-and into the living room, which is significant in a couple of ways. The boy's bedroom just had a little TV monitor whereas the living room suddenly started to have a 40- or 50-inch flat panel screen or projector system. Plus, game machines were generating fantastic graphics. Games are now doing things in real time that you needed a supercomputer to do when I started in the 3-D graphics industry for visual effects in Hollywood. The better graphics and bigger screen allowed games to start to become more cinematic, more engaging, and really exciting. Watching your kid play a game in cinematic form on this big screen was nearly as engaging as watching them play ice hockey or soccer at school.