I have been quite disappointed the past few years regarding any technological improvements in computer science. If I try to think of any seemingly important advances that affected the daily lives of ordinary people, the two that come to mind immediately are Facebook and the iPhone. The only novelty of Facebook over MySpace used to be exclusivity, which made it more desirable and ultimately more successful. The iPhone is a “glorified Palm organizer” whose great selling point is a gamut of useful applications. Why is it a success? Because it was glorified by a press corp that hangs from every word Steve Jobs utters (an iPhone without a data plan is no better than any Palm-like pocket organizer produced ten years ago, and harder to type text into; believe me, I have used both extensively; okay, it also acts as a phone, but that was only made possible due to the anticipated decrease of integrated circuit sizes) .
I believe though that the wait for something truly exciting is over. The Microsoft Kinect is upon us!
The Kinect is a mind-blowing innovation. The concept is simple: You pack two cameras, an IR sensor and 4 microphones into a small box, and all of a sudden a computer standing in front of you can recognize your posture, your facial expression, and your voice. Forget about gaming for a moment. Posture + expression + voice = sentiment, feelings, mood.
Notice that Kinect is not using any ground breaking technology. It simply combines existing technology, plus sophisticated software to provide a novel experience (this is very similar to what the iPhone did for pocket organizers). But I expect the outcome of this new experience to be profound. Gaming is only one aspect of this device. It will be exciting to watch what other applications of Kinect people’s imagination will conceive.
I will give you one simple example. I was watching a commercial of Mercedes Bentz advertising a new feature called Attention Assist. Attention assist monitors various parameter of driving characteristics, including variations in speed and minor steering adjustments, in order to determine whether the driver is falling asleep. Sounds complicated and error prone. What if a computer using technology similar to Kinect could detect whether you are yawning or if your eyes are closed? Sounds simpler and safe. Well, now it appears possible. Of course a more sophisticated Kinect might finally make Minority Report style interfaces a reality, which can have applications in a variety of domains.
But the simple reality is that our relationship with machines will never be the same again, once they can understand our emotions (frustration at performing a task for example) and react to them accordingly.
Update: There is a post on slashdot about two potential applications of Kinect. One is to use it to create robots that have depth perception that you can maneuver with your gestures. The other one is for advertisers to play directed commercials according to how many people or who is sitting in front of the TV. Scary stuff…