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First Look: Kinect for Windows

If you were hoping to pick up a Kinect sensor for Windows and start playing Xbox 360-like motion sensor games like Kinect Sports or Just Dance, please let me disavow you of that notion. This strange and expensive device exists for one and only one reason right now, and that has nothing to do with consumers having fun. Instead, Kinect for Windows is, for now at least, purely a toy for developers. And that means it's appeal isn't just limited, it's off the charts.

Why Amazon is even selling this device is beyond me, to be frank. But it is, and for a whopping $250, currently about $150 more than a Kinect for Xbox 360 (the latter of which also includes a game). That latter device, while flawed, actually does something: It enables a growing stable of games for Microsoft's video game console and triggers new motion- and voice-based interaction experiences. But on the PC, Kinect for Windows ... Well, it doesn't do a thing for you.

Unless you're a developer, that is.


If you can get over the price, what comes in the box is the second clue something is amiss. There's the Kinect sensor, of course, which now bears "Kinect" logos instead of the "Xbox 360" logos that adorn the original model. The long cabling allows for a USB connection to the PC, of course, and a separate power supply. And.. That's it. There's a pamphlet including warranty and safety information but no user guide of any kind, and no installation disk at all.


Cheaply duct-taped cable extension

Look very closely at both Kinect versions and you'll see one semi-major difference. The middle of the Kinect's three "eyes"--all of which are sensors of some kind--is different than the one on the original, Xbox-based Kinect. That's the camera, of course, and if you've been paying attention you know that Microsoft indeed upgrading the device's optics to enable a new near mode that no longer requires using it in a room that's at least 6 feet deep. (And is ideally much, much bigger than that.) Now, supposedly, you can use the Kinect while seated at your PC.

Kinect for Windows, top, Kinect for Xbox 360, bottom

When you plug the Kinect into a Windows-based PC, nothing happens. Check Device Manager, however, and you'll see a Kinect entry, so the drivers were properly found and loaded. But the device doesn't register as a normal video or audio device, so you can't use it for, say, Skype in either capacity. It just sits there, with a blinking green light, doing nothing.

Windows Update? Nope. Nothing.

Checking the Microsoft web site, I haven't found any end user documentation for the device per se; just some general guidelines for positioning the device and not trying to angle it manually. But there is a Kinect SDK for developers available. This installs a Kinect for Windows Sample Browser that includes links to release notes and documentation (all developer based, of course), an API reference, a Kinect Explorer, Shape Game, Skeletal Viewer, Kinect Audio Demo, and an audio recorder.


Most of this stuff isn't actually installed already, so if you want to play around, you have some work to do. Developers who are interested in Kinect will find both managed (C#) and unmanaged (C++) code is available, which should broaden the device's appeal.


To be (somewhat) fair, buried deep in the Microsoft web site is the following statement. "Note: The sensor unit does not ship with any software, and will only operate with an application developed for Kinect for Windows. In addition, the Kinect for Windows sensor is intended to be used with the Kinect for Windows SDK or an application that was developed with this SDK. The SDK includes drivers, APIs, sample code and more."


But how do you actually use the darn thing? On the Xbox 360, of course, there is a suite of software utilities for configuring the Kinect, and setting it up to work optimally. On the PC, nothing. Microsoft's web site says that Kinect for Windows "provides a fully-supported end-user experience." That is most definitely not the case.

Long story short, there's only one reason to get a Kinect for Windows right now: You're a developer that wishes to create Kinect-compatible apps for Windows. How Microsoft could have shipped this thing without at least a few games, or at least configuration utilities, however, is beyond me. It's a weird chicken-and-egg thing right now: Users might want a Kinect to play games, but there aren't any. Yet.

I suppose there will be, some day. But Microsoft could have done a lot to drive excitement for this device by starting to port the best Kinect for Xbox games to the PC. Why they haven't is a mystery.

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