Sometimes, all a company needs to do is to provide a positive spin on a situation it has little control over and everything will work out nicely. This is apparently the case with Microsoft’s recently-launched Kinect motion sensing device, shortly after open-source hackers have announced the creation of a free driver to allow usage of the device on a regular PC. Way to go, Microsoft.
The Kinect may be a trailblazer in terms of video gaming, but Microsoft sure had a problem with it initially. No, we are not talking about its failure to properly recognize certain skin colours, clothes or gestures, but rather, the overly enthusiastic open-source community.
For those who may not be aware with the latest storm over the Kinect, Microsoft had earlier announced that the device can only be used on an Xbox 360, in spite of its ubiquitous USB interface. Needless to say, this particular announcement did not sit well with open-source developers, and a company known as Adafruit had taken the initiative to offer a US$3000 bounty to any developer who could write an open-source driver for using the Kinect on other devices.
And as it turns out, Adafruit was successful: a developer eventually secured the bounty with the libfreenect driver stack, which has since been ported over to both Linux and OS X. As expected, Microsoft was not exactly pleased with such a turn of events. In response, the Redmond giant announced publicly that it did not condone the hacking of its device for use in ‘unauthorized’ devices, and will take both technical and legal action to prevent such developers from repurposing the Kinect.
However, in a surprising about-turn, Microsoft claimed in a talk show that the ‘hack’ done on the Kinect could not be technically labeled as one. This is due to the fact that its in-house programmers had never intended to hard-lock down the Kinect’s USB connection: as a result, all the open-source developer did was to write a simple driver and opened a connection from the Kinect’s USB interface to that of a standard PC.
In other words, Microsoft left the connection open on purpose, in order to allow people to tinker with it at their own fancy. This, in retrospect, seems plausible: if Microsoft had actually imposed a hardware block in the Kinect to restrict its use to the Xbox 360 console only, the company might have just as well stirred up a hornet’s nest, and one can be sure that there will be calls for the FTC to investigate the Redmond giant.
More importantly, it is also likely that Microsoft’s words can be taken at face value: that the company really did leave the USB connection unprotected in order for developers to tinker around with. After all, the general rule about USB-powered devices is that they are expected to work on any machine which sports a traditional USB port, and it is a given that there will be developers interested in getting the Kinect to work with a traditional PC, as part of a hobby. Microsoft probably just did not expect the hobbyists to launch a commercial effort into doing so.
Still, regardless of Microsoft’s intentions for not locking down the USB interface to the Xbox 360, it cannot be denied that this whole situation sounds like a very PR-ish response to an issue Microsoft had not anticipated for. Well, at the very least, it might just help Microsoft score a few brownie points with the open-source developer community.
And one more thing: despite its change of tune, Microsoft is still not condoning the actions of those who released the drivers for repurposing the Kinect. Oh well.