A recent article in the Los Angeles Times made me start to think about the changing roles art managers might face in the future. With innovations in technology, the work being created today has transformed our traditional perceptions of what art truly is. I though that the article below about Microsoft’s Kinect video software was worth sharing with you because it is innovations like this that will take the art world by storm within the next few years.
Opening up the source: Microsoft’s Kinect gets pushed beyond the videogame
After the Kinect’s November U.S. release, a race to crack it began. Motivated by a $2,000 prize promised by hardware kit company Adafruit Industries, open source enthusiasts frenetically got to work.
In true hacker spirit, Adafruit upped the bounty to $3,000 after Microsoft issued an ominous statement to CNET, stating that they would “work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.”
A mere six days after the console was unleashed, hacker Hector Marcan broke through and uploaded his code. After submitting to Adafruit, Marcan also posted on the OpenKinect project — the center of the current cyclone of innovation founded by interface engineer Joshua Blake.
An open community of hackers, engineers and artists, OpenKinect is a communal effort to use the Kinect hardware with PCs and other devices with free, open source code.
How members decide to use this code is completely up to them. As a result, the Kinect has already been used in countless ways its creators never anticipated, from real-time 3D sculpting to creating a giant virtual piano, with new examples being uploaded to YouTube each day.
For Blake, who studied non-traditional interfaces in college and has been designing and developing applications for the Microsoft Surface software platform since 2008, starting the OpenKinect project was his way of pushing for change in the way we interact with computers.
Blake said that when he started OpenKinect, he “anticipated that perhaps a couple dozen, maybe a hundred people eventually, would join my OpenKinect mailing list and maybe we would put out a few neat concept videos. Instead there were hundreds and thousands interested. Right now there are more than 1,650 people on the mailing list.”
As a result of OpenKinect’s inclusive structure, the Kinect has been put to new tasks by teams around the world far faster, and with far more creativity, than any one development team could manage on its own, according to Kyle Machulis, an Integration and Engineering Lead of the community.
From remote light saber fighting programmed by Oliver Kreylos, a researcher at UC Davis, to virtual reality concepts programmed by Japanese game companies, to an “X-ray vision” hack by students in Germany, the OpenKinect project has created a non-geographical community hell-bent on exploring the limits of the hardware.
Machulis said, “My view on what I would like to see done with the [Kinect] has already been so completely shattered that I haven’t been able to build it back up yet, from what we’ve seen out of the open source projects.”
One member of the community, roboticist and artist Eric Gradman, was a Kinect skeptic to start. Gradman, a member of the Synn Labs art and technology collective here in Los Angeles [profiled on pages 14-15], had been using computer vision sensors in his art projects long before the development of the Kinect, and he doubted Microsoft’s toy at first.
As the Kinect approached its release date, however, Gradman began to see things in a different light. He thought , “Oh my god, I think they’ve actually done it, I think Microsoft and PrimeSense are about to release a device that’s going to take all the magic I was applying to art, the computer vision magic that so few people had, and make it available to everyone.”
Gradman quickly realized that the low price of the Kinect, combined with the open source software infrastructure being developed by the OpenKinect community meant he could develop new interactive art projects quicker and more easily than ever before.
He said the Kinect has, “Replaced not only highly calibrated devices, highly expensive devices I needed to use, it’s also replaced the labor necessary to fuse the data from those devices.”
As a result, Gradman has already developed new art projects expressly for the Kinect, and displayed them publicly at L.A.’s high-brow happy hour, Mindshare, a monthly meeting of up-and-coming innovators and inventors. His Illuminous and Standard Gravity projects allow viewers to interact with the art, in real time. Gradman said that, “For someone who wanted to capture human motion and turn it into data I could use to drive an art project, [the Kinect] is unmatched.”
Perhaps recognizing the value of this innovation, Microsoft has since backed off their strict anti-tampering stance, even going so far as to have spokespeople appearing on the Science Friday podcast say that the port being used to connect the Kinect to PCs was “left open by design.”
When reached via e-mail, a Microsoft spokesperson would not address the OpenKinect project by name, but did imply that no action would be taken against those repurposing the Kinect.
In fact, PrimeSense — the company behind Kinect’s camera technology— has now released a non-Xbox branded version of the camera , and has started their own open source interface technology project. Called OpenNI, it will attempt to create a software framework that can recognize data from many different sensors, including the Kinect, and turn it into usable information for developers.
Gradman said after countless instances of hackers being punished in the courts over the years, this was a major relief.
“It seems very clear that Microsoft is doing the right thing here, and recognizing the democratizing power of open drivers, and it’s very encouraging,” he added.
Phil Reyneri, Interactive Developer at technology lab and creative agency Obscura Digital, says that the Kinect has allowed them to create new interactive displays — including one for a major computer manufacturer’s consumer experience area at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show — that previously would have cost exponentially more.
But what Reyneri is really excited about is his personal plans to develop innovative new Kinect-aided visuals for DJs to use as part of their stage shows. Currently in talks with electro-house DJ Porter Robinson, Reyneri hopes to use the Kinect for a variety of purposes, from projecting go-go dancers in a variety of futuristic guises to allowing a DJ to control motorized lasers merely by moving their hands.
Another area where the Kinect could really be revolutionary, Reyneri said, is in democratizing special effects that were previously the sole domain of studios with money to blow on motion capture and compositing. He said that some day soon, cameras that incorporate Kinect-style depth sensors could eliminate the need for green screens all together.
Machulis saw this too, and said the Kinect will, “Give smaller companies that don’t have as much money the ability to do basic motion capture with more accuracy.”
As the open source drivers become more sophisticated and the community grows, more innovators will be able to try their ideas. Although plenty will fail, those who succeed will be leading the push past the mouse and keyboard towards a more natural way to interact with technology.
This Natural User Interface technology, or NUI, is already present on smart phones and tablets that feature multi-touch, pinch-to-zoom and other intuitive gesture-based control systems, but could be expanded to replace the television remote, the mouse and keyboard, and to introduce technology into new avenues of life.
For Blake, the development of a new mode of interaction is the key to spreading the advantages of technology to the “next billion people.” As computers have gotten easier to use, from command line interfaces usable only by coders, to graphical user interfaces (GUI) like Windows and the Mac OS, they have become more widespread, and more useful to the general population.
According to Blake, “GUIs are still inaccessible to millions of people who for various reasons cannot grasp the concepts, and computing interactions are limited to the box with the screen and keyboard. Natural User Interfaces … will spread to become the default mode of interaction with all computing devices.”
Whether this means remote-less TVs, “Minority Report” style displays (only for Facebook stalking instead of crime solving), housekeeping robots that respond to gestures or something completely different, you can be sure that the OpenKinect community will have its say in what comes next.
Where the Kinect’s technology shines is in real-time, motion based creations. Which means that a photo can’t really do it justice. Here are some of our favorite videos showing what the mad scientists of the OpenKinect community are cooking up. To see more, head to the OpenKinect Gallery.
– Daniel Siegal