Ubi Interactive Bets on Kinect, Finds a New Home in Seattle

7/10/12Follow @curtwoodward

Last Christmas was not shaping up to be a banner holiday season for Anup Chathoth. Sick and cooped up at home, the young entrepreneur was contemplating how he could revive an idea that he’d been crunching for several months.

Chathoth and his partner, Chao Zhang, were trying to make a new device that could turn a wall, table, or virtually any other surface into a kind of touchscreen. By combining a projector, sensitive cameras, and motion-tracking software, they figured it would be possible to make formerly static images into a fully interactive display, with the motion of a user’s fingers standing in for a standard mouse.

Touch the image of a button being projected onto a wall, and their software would interpret it as a mouse click, opening up the next page of a website. Pinch two fingers together on a map, and it would zoom in, just like on a tablet or smartphone.

But when it came to assembling the hardware, Chathoth and Zhang were just plain stuck. Their startup, ubi interactive, had tried to put together its own small projector unit that could be worn around a user’s neck or set on a table. They’d looked into making a peripheral device, something that could be plugged into a computer’s USB port to track movements on an external screen.

Neither option really worked. For one thing, the high-end cameras they were counting on to track the movements were prohibitively expensive. And even in this age of cheap global manufacturing, where entire cities in China are devoted to churning out components and devices, it’s still no small feat to build a new electronic gadget.

“We’re not Apple or Amazon or Google,” Chathoth says. “We’re talking about a device which has a computer, cameras, and wireless—everything.”

Chathoth

That’s when Chathoth remembered Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensor. Chathoth and Zhang had played with the thing before, but considered its hardware a little too limited for the high-test uses they were planning.

But what the hell, he figured. He was already stuck at home with two weeks of holiday vacation to spare and a nagging illness. And it’s easier to write software than to try making your own hardware.

So Chathoth ran back to Munich’s Technical University, where he and Zhang had been working on their project, and grabbed the Kinect system. And for the next couple of weeks, he coded away.

“By the time we came back from vacation, I was actually setting it up in our room,” Chathoth says. “Chao was coming in and saying `Hey, this works now.’ So that was a truly big moment for us, because suddenly, a lot of our problems disappeared.”

When the Kinect debuted in late 2010, it revolutionized the console gaming industry.

Nintendo had previously made huge waves with its Wii system, which tracked how a player wielded their handled remote control. But the Kinect’s sleek little black bar blew past the Wii and Sony’s PlayStation3, allowing players to control the onscreen action simply by contorting their bodies.

Hackers immediately saw much bigger potential. A wave of customizations began cropping up almost at once, contemplating everything from controlling toy helicopters to surgical robot interfaces. Suddenly, the potential of Kinect was growing well beyond powering video-game dance competitions.

Microsoft’s initial public response was not welcoming, with hints of possible legal consequences for tampering with the company’s new toy. But the tune coming from Redmond soon changed. People working directly on the Kinect project said they’d meant to expose the device to developers all along—the company PR machinery just hadn’t been clued in yet. Some didn’t buy that line, but it hardly mattered. Microsoft was embracing outside alterations of its video-game sensor as a new computer interface.

It was an important step for the company. Xbox is Microsoft’s only surefire consumer device success, winning where the Zune music player, Kin phone, and early versions of tablets have all failed. Getting talented outsiders to work on the platform would only make the success sweeter because it could help advance the uses for Kinect’s motion- and sound-sensing tools far beyond gaming.

Suddenly, the stodgy old enterprise software behemoth that couldn’t innovate to save its life had something going.

Chathoth and Zhang had been watching the growth of Kinect modifications from their post in Munich. At first, Microsoft only offered a Windows development kit for academics and nonprofits. And that version was … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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