Mundie: Microsoft's Avatar Kinect Has Future in Telepresence (UPDATED)

Will business meetings one day use Microsoft's Avatar Kinect? According to Craig Mundie, head of Microsoft Research and the company's chief research and strategy officer, it's a distinct possibility.

Speaking at this week's Research Faculty Summit in Redmond, Wash., Mundie said the Kinect sensor may one day be miniaturized for smartphones, laptops and other mobile devices. These mini-Kinect cameras could then enable remote telepresence business meetings via avatars, which are graphical representations of people.

Mundie laid out that vision in response to a question about the potential uses of Kinect camera technology in mobile devices. Currently, Kinect is sold just as an addition to Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console.

"I could dream about a day where anywhere today that you have a camera, which is the back of your cell phone or the bezel of your laptop, there's no reason to think that over time that camera shouldn't be this kind of camera [Kinect]," Mundie said according to a Microsoft transcript. "And there's obviously a lot of work yet to go to produce that level of miniaturization, but I don't see any fundamental reason to think that wouldn't happen."

Kinect is one of Microsoft's many recent products that use so-called "natural user interface" inputs, enabling human movements to serve as computer commands. Mundie said he started a Microsoft Research project that eventually became Avatar Kinect. In January at the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer first demonstrated Avatar Kinect, which adds limited facial gestures to cartoon-like avatar representations. Getting more photo-realistic avatars of people is still a ways off, Mundie said.

Avatars can facilitate telepresence business meetings because they avoid the awkward angles of videoconferencing, as well as sound distortion due to distance, Mundie said. They're ideal for conducting remote meetings on mobile devices because avatars have "almost a zero bandwidth requirement" and will work in real time over a voice call, he added.

Avatar Kinect "will go live worldwide" this month, Mundie said. (UPDATED 7/25: Microsoft released Avatar Kinect on Monday. It normally requires an Xbox Live Gold subscription, but it's free to use from July 25 to Sept. 8 for all Xbox users, according to a Microsoft announcement.)

Xbox Live Gold subscribers can have meetings of up to eight people at a time worldwide using the technology. The Microsoft Xbox team deliberately built Avatar Kinect to broaden the Xbox's demographic appeal beyond males between the ages of 12 and 30 and to offer a more simplified user interface as a way to draw more casual game players to use Xbox, Mundie explained.

Ironically, Microsoft is now being sued by Bay Village, Ohio-based Impulse Technology Ltd. over six patents associated with movement tracking and one patent associated with educational systems that tap kinesthetic systems. The case (PDF) was filed on July 1 in a Delaware U.S. district court against Microsoft and eight companies involved in the video game industry. A summary of the case is posted at this Patent Arcade page.

Microsoft shipped 1.7 million Xbox 360 devices in its fiscal fourth quarter. It has about 35 million Xbox Live members, according to its Q4 earnings report.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.