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Kinect revived as cloud-powered sensor for HoloLens and more

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Microsoft Project Kinect for Azure
The new Project Kinect for Azure sensor, featuring a 1-megapixel depth camera with a wide field of view.
Microsoft

The Kinect sensor is probably never coming back as a gaming device, but Microsoft has been continuing to work on the the platform’s underlying technology, and the company is now taking it to new heights: the cloud.

Microsoft is reviving Kinect as Project Kinect for Azure, CEO Satya Nadella announced today during Build, the company’s annual developer conference. Azure is Microsoft’s cloud computing service, which is one of the company’s most profitable business segments.

Project Kinect for Azure is designed to allow developers to “apply AI over the real world in profound new ways,” said Alex Kipman, technical fellow on AI perception and mixed reality at Microsoft, in a LinkedIn blog post. Kipman, who is credited as the inventor of both Kinect and the mixed reality technology HoloLens, touched on Nadella’s discussion of the “intelligent edge,” describing the term as “the ability for devices to perceive the people, places and things around them.” Computer vision has always been one of the main facets of Kinect, and according to Kipman, an Azure-powered Kinect platform “will enable developers to make the intelligent edge more perceptive than ever before.”

At Build today, Nadella spoke about a new fourth-generation Kinect sensor, which Kipman said will be the basis of the next generation of HoloLens devices and will deliver “new capabilities.” This sensor includes a higher-resolution depth camera (1024x1024, or 1 megapixel) that can run with very low power consumption, ranging from 225-950 mW.

Microsoft is focusing on three main areas of Project Kinect for Azure development: machine learning, cognitive services and “internet of things” edge. “We envision that Project Kinect for Azure will result in new AI solutions from Microsoft and our ecosystem of partners, built on the growing range of sensors integrating with Azure AI services,” said Kipman. One possible use case is doing deep learning on images captured by the depth sensor — the new technology would allow for “dramatically smaller networks” to deliver an outcome of the same quality, which would make AI algorithms cheaper to implement, according to Kipman.

It’s a new life for Kinect after the hardware itself was considered dead. Microsoft debuted Kinect as an Xbox 360 peripheral in 2010, and released a modified version of the device that was compatible with Windows PCs in 2012. Then, Microsoft developed an enhanced Kinect sensor that it bundled with all Xbox One consoles at that system’s launch in 2013. But the Xbox One Kinect never picked up much steam as a gaming device, and its other features fell by the wayside as Microsoft gradually pivoted away from its entertainment ambitions with the console. The company put the final nail in the Xbox One Kinect’s coffin last fall, when it confirmed it had ended production of the device.