Kinect Underground: The Secret World of Microsoft's Motion Controller


Posted September 29, 2011 - By Guest Writer

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Kinect Underground: The Secret World of Microsoft's Motion Controller

You need only look at hardcore gamers’ reaction to Microsoft’s E3 press conference a few months back to see that the Kinect platform is not impressing its earliest adopters. This is not to say that the platform doesn’t have its strengths – Dance Central is still one of the best full-price party games of the last decade (with Dance Central 2 eagerly anticipated), Child of Eden rocked reviewers’ socks last summer, The Gunstringer impressed fans of Westerns and marionettes alike, and interesting downloadable games like Fruit Ninja Kinect and Leedmees are proving novel (and fun!) uses of the interface.

However, the coolest – and the most innovative – Kinect applications aren’t coming in boxes. Nor are they quirky downloadable titles on XBLA. In fact, the most cutting edge Kinect stuff isn’t for sale at all – it’s being tinkered with in labs and basements and garages, from MIT to big academic medical centers to programmer’s bedrooms and everything in between. You may not be reading about it as much in the mainstream gaming press, but Kinect is the coolest, most experimental platform out there right now.

Awesome hacks

Every now and then, the gaming blogosphere picks up on one of the hundreds of fascinating Kinect hacks that programmers the world over have been working on, but that’s really just scratching the surface. The technology has been used to render a player "invisible" with optical camouflage, to make 3D shadow puppets (move over, Muppets!), and play a full-body version of an NES controller, playing classic Mario games.

Perhaps one of the most impressive hacks to date was a fairly early project by the good folks at MIT, who actually devised a way to get John Underkoffler's Minority Report interface to work with MS' new toy. The team achieved the effect by devising a methodology of detecting individual fingers, and the sourced Joystiq piece also contains a link to the technical documentation, should you feel the urge to set up a sci-fi super cop lab in your own living room.

For the good of mankind

Ok, so there are a lot of cool, fun, interesting implementations out there. There are also hacks that have serious potential to do good on a larger scale – like this use of the tech to interface with a surgical robot. Granted, what’s on display here is a pretty simple procedure – a needle insertion – and a few other fine motor tasks, but it’s hard to argue against the concept. It’s a next logical step up from the earlier reports about surgeons in training finding that playing Wii games helped improve their movements – and potentially a bridge between gaming and actual surgical aids.

It’s far from the only implementation in the medical world. It’s being studied for use as a diagnostic tool for mental disorders in children at the University of Minnesota, used as a prototype navigation system for the blind, and used in another surgical context entirely – allowing surgeons (who are scrubbed in and cannot touch any other objects in an operating room) sift through images and other data during surgery.

The implications here are pretty incredible. Essentially, this is an inexpensive, versatile piece of tech that has the potential to help doctors save lives. It’s tough to overstate just how awesome that is.

Synapse again

Cool productivity hacks and medical implementations are fantastic, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the best and brightest experimental Kinect games out there. While you’ll never find it in a box on a Best Buy shelf, Synapse, made by experimental game designer Robin Arnott (who created Deep Sea) and a small team of collaborators, has to be one of the most interesting games made for the platform.

The dance/music synthesizer/visual synthesizer experience debuted as an installation at Burning Man this year. It’s probably the furthest thing from a “commercial” experience such that we were exposed to at MS’ presser last June, and that’s a huge part of its appeal.

We were able to get in touch with Arnott via email and speak about his inspiration for the project, which he began after one particularly harrowing experience with his previous game at last year’s South by Southwest (SXSW). Deep Sea – an audio-only game that actually blinds players with a gas mask and punishes them for breathing, is an intense, anxiety-provoking experiment in terror, and it caused one player to actually faint.

“Deep Sea was an experiment in maximizing a player's emotional investment in an experience, and it does so with negative emotions. After SXSW, the method of the experiment mattered far more to me than it had before. I wanted to continue this experiment, but by way of a positive experience, not a negative one.” He says.

“Synapse was my answer to that. Instead of building an immersive connection between the player and a game narrative, Synapse builds an immersive connection between the player and themselves, and the people around them. It's designed to be a purely sensual experience, to melt the distinction between sensory inputs and guide the player (and those observing) into a euphoric trance.”

He also designed the experience around the notion of flow, a concept he says he dug from friends who are fire spinners.

Synapse borrows a part of this notion of flow. The key thing is to disengage the participants' consciously thinking brain and just let them feel. There's a lot of misunderstanding about the way sensation works. You don't see some things and hear others, and paint a mental picture full of these separate information streams in your head. What you experience and remember is a flux of information that, though informed by your individual senses, describes the whole and not the parts. You can certainly focus on individual sensory streams, but for the most part what you experience is uncolored by which particular sense delivered the piece of information. I'm a sound designer - one of the first things people notice when you put great sound design in a game is how much better it looks.”

“By synchronizing repetitive and abstract audio and video events to physical events (a dance, and eventually a vibrating component will be added), we drastically simplify the conscious mental engagement participants have with the media, while sending a full-bandwidth signal through all sensory channels. They bliss out. They flow. Not all the time, but sometimes.”

You can follow along with the project over on the Synapse Tumbler and Arnott’s official site. If you want to experience it in person however, you’ll need to track it off the beaten path:

“In the mean time, we'll be taking the project to other hippie arts festivals around Austin and Portland as they come up over the year. But unless I dose the muffins in the speaker lounges with LSD, I think it'd just be kind of an oddity at conventional game development spaces like GDC.”

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja from Boston. You should follow her on twitter for all of the relevant links and details: @danielleri


Kinect Underground: The Secret World of Microsoft's Motion Controller


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