Startup Companies Take Kinect Into Uncharted Territory

REDMOND, Wash. — Jun
e 29, 2012 —“The Web is a depressingly flat place,” declares Nicolas Tisserand, one half of French startup Manctl. “It’s time to bring some depth to digital life.”

Tisserand is explaining why his company temporarily relocated from Lyon to an office building in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. As if on cue, his partner Nicolas Burrus stands up with a Kinect sensor in hand. He slowly circles a visitor to the office where the duo has set up shop. As he does, an interactive 3D rendering of the room and the individual appears on a nearby monitor.

Most professionals shell out thousands of dollars for a comparable 3D scanner. Manctl uses Kinect for Windows and its own mapping software to deliver the same results at a fraction of the price. The young company is out to revolutionize the Web by bringing 3D scanners to the masses, compliments of Kinect for Windows. Their vision? That one day everyone – even Tisserand’s mom – will be capturing the world in 3D.

“This is the future,” Tisserand says. “We want to capture the depth of people, places and things. If we can do that, we’ll be happy chaps.”

The pair says they’re getting a helpful start thanks to the Microsoft Accelerator for Kinect, a collaboration between Microsoft and TechStars, a startup incubator. The program, in partnership with Microsoft BizSpark, brings together young companies building Kinect-enabled commercial applications with the guidance of mentors from Microsoft and the startup community. For the past three months, Manctl and 10 other startups from around the world have been in Seattle evolving their code and business plans. The program concluded this week with Demo Day, where the companies pitched their ideas to more than 200 investors, venture capitalists and corporate partners.

The diversity of industries these solutions are targeting – from healthcare and medical training to entertainment and 3D modeling – reflects Kinect’s push beyond the living room, said Craig Eisler, general manager of Kinect for Windows at Microsoft. Today, more than 350 companies from around the world have joined Microsoft’s testing and adoption program to explore Kinect’s commercial possibilities. The goal of the Microsoft Accelerator for Kinect is to help young startups join those ranks faster than they could otherwise.

“We wanted to put some topspin on the entrepreneurial energy we’ve seen since the launch of Kinect for Windows,” Eisler said. “This was a way for us to help young companies push the envelope faster.”

Microsoft expected to receive 100-150 applications for the program. Instead they received nearly 500 from more than 60 countries. During the selection process, Microsoft aimed to identify 10, but ended up with 11 given the caliber and potential of the finalists.

The response demonstrates a growing interest in innovating with Kinect from the worldwide startup community, said Dave Malcolm, managing director of the Kinect Accelerator program for TechStars. (He proudly notes that it was harder to get into this program than last year’s Harvard class. “We accepted about 2 percent of applicants. Harvard took 7 to 8 percent.”)

Malcolm says three months of feedback and introductions to mentors, investors and corporate partners have strengthened every business in the program. The participants agree.

“The name really says exactly what it is – it has accelerated the development of our company,” said Alan Jackson, CEO of New York-based VOXON. His company is working on a volumetric 3D display they call the VoxieBox. In laymen’s terms, it creates a holograph: a 3D image floating in space that is viewable without glasses in 360 degrees. Jackson calls it the future of display technology.

Back in New York, Jackson used screwdrivers and a hacksaws to tinker with the hardware. But for the past three months his toolbox has included laser cutting systems and 3D printers. He’s also received technical support from several Microsoft engineers he met through the program.

Jackson has been building 3D output displays since the ’80s. Until recently, the projection hardware at the core of these displays cost upwards of US$40,000, but advances have brought the price down to around $600. With Kinect providing cheap 3D input, VOXON thinks the next logical step is an equally cheap output.

VOXON sees a number of markets for the VoxieBox, such as an educational tool to allow students to explore a DNA molecule or a geometric figure from all angles. They also believe volumetric display is the future of film. “Forget the 3D glasses,” Jackson said. “Soon we’ll all be going to the voxies.”

Seattle-based Ikkos Training is another company that has benefited from Microsoft technical knowhow via the Microsoft Accelerator for Kinect, according to founder Sean Hutchinson.

“Joining the Kinect Accelerator was an intentional decision to immerse myself in the tech world,” said Hutchinson, a former Olympic swim coach. “Being in Seattle there’s some osmosis, but not much.”

Ikkos aims to bring Kinect to elite athletic training. The company’s training method seeks to help improve and measure performance based on what’s called neuroplasticity, or, more simply, the brain’s ability to adapt and learn a new or different function, Hutchinson says.

Here’s how it works: Users put on a device similar to Star Trek character Geordi Laforge’s visor and watch an elite athlete’s perfect mechanics on a repeated loop. Hutchinson says the image is being downloaded onto the visual cortex of the viewer’s brain; they see the perfect repetitions of a swimmer’s stroke, a golfer’s swing, or a basketball’s star shot and “learn” the motion. Later, when they try to put it into practice, Kinect can examine their mechanics and measure improvements. Hutchinson says the method accelerates the user’s movements faster than traditional training.

“Will I be Tiger Woods after one time? No,” Hutchinson says. “But can you get significantly closer and learn at a faster rate? Absolutely.”

While Hutchinson was focused on learning the technology, Mactl’s Tisserand admits to being on the other side of the program’s learning curve. A longtime researcher and academic like his partner, Tisserand found the Microsoft Accelerator for Kinect extremely helpful when it came to developing and building a company based on a technology idea.

“The program definitely dipped us deep into the business side,” Tisserand said.

He added that the participating companies also inspired each other, not only offering help and advice, but creating collaboration opportunities. Example? Voxon is now using Manctl’s mapping software as they test the VoxieBox.

Microsoft has learned, too, Eisler said. The Kinect for Windows team has heard from the startups about what they’d like to see in future versions of the hardware and software development kit (SDK) as they build their businesses around the new platform.

Eisler said the Microsoft Accelerator for Kinect is just one way Microsoft is encouraging companies to create new applications to tap into the power of Kinect. The momentum for the Kinect for Windows platform keeps expanding, with version 1.5 of the Kinect for Windows SDK that released in late May, and the recent addition of 19 more countries and languages, bringing the product’s reach to 31 countries worldwide. Through the product’s expansion, and the company’s support of the Kinect ecosystem with programs like the Microsoft Accelerator, the possibilities remain limitless.

“If there is a keyboard or mouse involved, you could reimagine that using a Kinect,” Eisler said. “That’s where the interest comes from. There are so many different ways the technology can be used, and we’re only getting started.”