In many ways, Xbox 360 Kinect is simply another tech product. Microsoft, like so many companies before it, is attempting to expand its demographic reach and maybe rebrand a key product in the process.
But Kinect itself may be indicative of more than just one company’s attempts to make some cash.
After all, like the iPhone before it, Kinect is a new model for interfaces. It might not be the very first gesture controlled system; but it’s certainly the coolest and most accessible.
As a result, it might mean the success of Kinect, like other transformations in how we interact technology, may be a sign of what’s to come.
But if Kinect is a symbol of sorts, what is symbolic of?
Tech Should be Transparent
As much attention is paid to ‘being user friendly’, most technology continues to require a learning curve. Even the vaunted iPad isn’t completely obvious to simply anyone who picks it up.
Waving to get the attention of a machine, though? That’s pretty clear. Moving your hand to move your character’s hand? Simple. Want to fast forward a movie? Simply wave, then move your hand to the right.
And here we have something interesting: Microsoft has at least laid the groundwork for a technology that trumps Apple in the ‘it just works’ category. Sure, right now it’s a bit clunky and needs you to switch back and forth between gesture and the controller. But this is promising stuff, in part because it makes the benefits of technology accessible to almost anyone.
Rather than demanding you learn a particular interface or control scheme, Kinect goes the other way round: it take common physical gestures and translates those into the interface.
And that is a sign for where technology needs to go: it needs to become as transparent as possible, so that rather than presenting a barrier that must be overcome, tech becomes the thing that actually makes performing simple tasks.
A New Kind of Virtual Social
For the past decade, we’ve seen our idea of ‘the social’ undergo a radical change: rather than our social circle being defined by physical closeness, it’s starting to also include some people we rarely see – or may have never even met.
In a slew of ways, this is great. People can connect with many more who share their interests, while connecting with those we already know over distance is far easier than ever.
But continuing a trend that was pushed into the foreground by the Wii, Kinect encourages physical socializing – you know, that thing you do when you hang out and play games with people in the same room.
The thing is, as great as the internet is at connecting people across distance, sometimes that comes at the expense of in-person interaction. And maybe Kinect isn’t going to the magical thing that unites families, healing all wounds to have people of many generations come together, playing games right after they pet their new unicorn. But as part of a broader trend, Kinect is a sign that technology can foster a social experience that is about co-operation rather competition, and involves groups of people together in one room, rather than in a virtual lobby or chat room.
Hacking and the Fight for Control
All of this is made possible by some pretty powerful technology. And any time that happens, hacking is a distinct possibility.
But the hacking of Kinect – which Microsoft has now embraced – is also a sign that when powerful technology gets released to the public, there will always be a fight for control.
In the past, how we used technology was largely influenced by what companies wanted us to do with it. If you got a TV, your access to shows and movies was dictated by cable companies and movie studios. How you used a car was limited by laws and even artificial speed limiters.
But because ‘virtual’ technology is based largely in software, rather than hardware, more and more people can re-purpose technology to do what they want. This happened with early computers, with mobile phones, and now it’s happening in an even more significant way when interfaces like Kinect and touchscreens are barely physical at all.
What this means is that rather than ‘freedom’ only being a fight between people and governments, it’s also a fight between hackers and corporations for how their multi-purpose technology is used.
The Less Physical Tech is, The More Possibilities it Has
Technology and what we do with has always been limited by physical stuff. A keyboard can’t do this; this screen can’t display that. But as technology becomes more and more ‘non-physical’ – at least in how we interact it – our capacity to make it do new, interesting, accessible things grows and grows.
And Kinect, being perhaps the ‘least physical’ form of interface yet, is perhaps a sign of where technology might be going.