10 ways Microsoft Kinect will change our world in the next decade

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Six months after our Kinect arrived in our lives, it’s mostly unused. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less transformative than I’d hoped…just in different ways than I predicted.

In our household the Kinect’s shining moment came on New Year’s Eve, when our first effort at having a kid-friendly grownup party (as opposed to a kid party with adult chaperones) turned out to be one of the best evenings we’d had in a while. For a long time the parents were upstairs chatting while kids were downstairs gaming, but around 10 pm everybody converged in the living room and started playing Dance Central on the Kinect. Parents played their kids, kids played each other, families played families. It was the kind of moment videogame ads package in commercials, but it was also an authentic experience of social connection in which technology helped break down the generational walls.

Last week, the world greeted Microsoft Kinect as “revolutionary”, “sci-fi like” and “the most exciting, most important leap forward for interactive home entertainment since Nintendo introduced the Wii”. This add-on for the XBox 360 gaming system uses facial and voice recognition and motion sensors to dispense with controllers: your body and gestures control the game.

It’s a huge advance for consumer-grade interfaces, so I was eager to try it out for myself. After a few days of playing on the Kinect with my husband, kids and a couple of friends, I feel like  I have a preliminary grasp of how this technology promises to transform more than videogames. Here are my predictions for how our world is going to change over the next 10 years, thanks to the Kinect:

  1. 2011: That snapshot of you puking is no longer the most embarrassing picture on your Facebook page. My favorite Kinect feature is the way Kinect games use the camera feed to snap pictures that show you exactly how stupid you look while fake hang gliding, bowling or dancing.  Hook the Kinect up to Facebook, and you can post those humiliating photos on your Facebook page. Which is somehow irresistible.
  2. 2012: You get a 3D TV. Playing games on the Kinect is the first experience that’s made me crave a 3D TV: since the sensor tracks your movements in 3 dimensions, you want to see your game in 3 dimensions, too. In some cases it feels like 3D would enhance game play, while in others (most notably, “Space Pop” in Kinect Adventures) the game feels almost broken in the absence of 3D. Once the Kinect gets a critical mass of 3D titles, you’ll want a 3D TV to play them on.
  3. 2013: Dance clubs go Stepford. Thriller, YMCA and Time Warp won’t be the only dances that inspire uniform choreography in a club full of dancers. Unlike Dance Dance Revolution and other mat-based dance games, the Kinect’s Dance Central does a good job of teaching actual dance moves. As a generation of dancers learns a set of real moves to go with current hit singles, they’re going to take those routines onto real-world dance floors. So expect to see a lot of side steps and fist pumping the next time “Poker Face” comes on at your favorite nightclub.
  4. 2014: The housedress makes a comeback. My grandmother worked at Condé Nast, the fashion publisher, and spent her workdays in tailored suits, silk blouses, stockings and heels. She needed something comfortable to wear once she got home, but never stooped to jeans and a sweatshirt: instead, she had a closet full of elegant house dresses, which she changed into before applying a fresh coat of lipstick and making dinner. After reviewing the photos that the Kinect took of me gaming in sweats, I suddenly see the appeal of a high-style home wardrobe. Look ahead to a new wave of fashion and beauty products aimed at making home gamers look good in their snapshots.
  5. 2015: The Ikea catalog will include 8 throw rugs and 25 different wheeled coffee tables. Our living room sofa is exactly 8 feet from our TV screen. For games that needed to see our feet, that was too close: we had to move our sofa out of the way.  As more and more folks get in the habit of shoving their furniture around, Ikea will need to offer more wheeled coffee tables than its current single model, and fewer throw rugs than its current selection of 100+.
  6. 2016: The average business person will be 10 pounds heavier. The Kinect’s voice recognition system has a cousin in the speech recognition built into Windows 7. Once people get used to using voice control with their home entertainment systems, they’ll take it for a spin at work…and give up using the mouse. No mouse means no mousepad…so companies will need a new swag item to give away at tech conferences. Logotized candy is the obvious alternative for the price. More free candy equals fatter business people.
  7. 2017: Your doctor finally gets a tablet PC. If you go to Kinect.com — an address a lot of people are going to start punching into their browsers — you land not on an Xbox site, but at the Kinect division of CAHG, a healthcare communications agency. Apparently one of Kinect’s areas of success is in moving pharmaceutical sales reps to tablet PCs. With the good luck of owning a newly hot URL, expect CAHG’s Kinect to grow its business…and pharmaceutical reps to change their marketing practices as a result. With all those tablet-wielding pharma sales people wandering through your doctor’s office, it’s only a matter of time before your doc makes the switch, too.
  8. 2018: Your can’t find your best friend in a crowd. To activate the Kinect’s sensor, you wave your hand. In a few days’ worth of testing, we found that you can’t count on a natural, full-arm wave to bring up the Kinect controls. What works consistently is moving your hand in a smooth arc while keeping your elbow tight against your ribcage. As we’re all retrained to wave just our forearms, the process of searching for a friend who’s waving at you from a crowd will get much tougher. If you’re lucky enough to have your friend on a cell phone (“I’m over here, waving at you!”) you might remind them to wave from the shoulder.
  9. 2019: Your ass will look great in jeans. It’s currently illegal to put surveillance cameras in retail store change rooms. But once we get used to having an Internet-connected motion sensing camera in our living rooms, we won’t be so shocked by the idea of ubiquitous surveillance. Bathrooms, office cubicles, elementary school classrooms: in the absence of protest, all the places where civil libertarians have guarded us from the watchful eye of the camera may soon be subject to monitoring. And once we have cameras in change rooms, it’s only a matter of time before stores offer 360 footage as a shopping “benefit”…allowing you to finally buy a pair of jeans with a great rear view.
  10. 2020: Drag goes mainstream. The prospect of family gaming was one of the chief appeals of the Kinect, and from the initial lineup of titles, you can be sure that parents with young kids are one of the key segments that MIcrosoft is targeting. Particularly for our 4-year-old, controller-free gaming sounded ideal, since many Wii games require more nuanced handling than he can manage. But a number of Kinect games persistently refused to see him unless we boosted him onto a stool…which made it hard for him to move around. The obvious solution is to put him in platform shoes. So figure that about 10 years from now, a generation of boys who learned to walk, dance and run in heels are going to take the drag scene to a whole new level.

The great thing about making bold predictions is that nobody remembers the 9 things you got wrong: they only remember the 1 thing you got right. So 10 years from now, when your son goes to his prom in heels, I want you to remember: you heard it here first.

Originally published November 10, 2010.

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