Microsoft's Kinect Accelerator program kicked off over a month ago, but at the time we were only made aware of the participant start-ups' names, not their innovations. So, when Microsoft offered us the opportunity to talk with the folks behind four of the program's participants -- Freak'n Genius, GestSure Technologies, Kimetric and Styku -- we jumped at the chance. Join us after the break to see what this quartet of fledgling companies has planned to propogate the Kinect effect further than ever.
Freak'n Genius co-founder Kyle Kesterson is a former illustrator and toy developer and current entrepreneur. The genesis of his company dates back to November of last year, when he participated in a Seattle Startup Weekend and emerged with a couple of partners and an idea for a platform that lets people create their own high-quality cartoons. You see, animation is a difficult, labor intensive process that requires a unique set of skills, but with a bit of software and a Kinect sensor bar, most anyone can create South Park-style animations.
In practice, the way it works is relatively simple. First, users create and import their own background and character illustrations and photos or choose from Freak'n Genius-provided content. That content can then be manipulated and adjusted via hand gestures to customize and set the scene. Then, like digital marionettes, Kinect allows the characters to mimic your movements and speak when you do. Up to two people can control characters at a time, but layered recording is available so that one person can animate multiple characters. Once you've made your masterpiece, you can easily share the results on Facebook or YouTube.
Kesterson told us that Freak'n Genius is initially bound only for Xbox, as it naturally fits in with the console's Kinect Fun Labs project. That means no Kinect for Windows compatibility just yet, but it's certainly in the cards should Freak'n Genius find success. Kyle sees some serious potential for the platform both for casual users to create skits and e-cards and for professional folks looking to take advantage of YouTube's shift to emphasizing quality original content generation -- Freak'n Genius could easily be used to produce, say, a Space Ghost Coast to Coast-style show.
While Freak'n Genius is among the more light-hearted Kinect Accelerator participants, many of the start-ups have a more practical focus. GestSure Technologies, for one, aims to put Kinect in operating rooms to make life easier on surgeons and nurses. Currently, doctors must prep for surgery by examining and memorizing the results of patient MRI and CT scans because they can't be used in the OR. Should a surgeon need to reference such results in the midst of a surgery, he has to either instruct an assisting nurse to leave and obtain the info needed or scrub out and get the data himself. Either method takes time, which is less-than-ideal (to say the least) when someone's life potentially hangs in the balance.
Enter Jamie Tremaine, a mechanical engineer, whose mind began to reel with the potential provided by Kinect back in November of 2010. The week of Kinect's release, Tremaine was out running with his buddies, general surgeon Dr. Matt Strickland and software engineer Greg Brigley, and the idea to leverage Kinect's gesture controls for use in operating rooms was hatched. GestSure Technologies was the result of that jogging epiphany, and within three weeks the first prototype was built.
The box itself is essentially a computer that serves USB bridge to connects the Kinect to existing hospital PCs used to interact with CT and MRI data. Its secret sauce maps gestures to mouse commands to allow surgeons to navigate through the images in the OR hands-free -- which means they no longer have to scrub out or wait for a nurse to obtain the info they need, saving valuable time in the process. It works using an embedded image processor to interpolate the Kinect data and shoot commands to the PC over USB 2.0, so it's a plug-and-play solution that requires no new drivers be installed on existing hospital computers. The device has already been tested in operating rooms, and FDA registration of the device is expected to be complete in less than two weeks. After that, the devices can be sold implemented in medical facilities all over the US.
Kinect's capabilities aren't only being explored in the realms of art and medicine, however, its also being put to use in retail outlets as well. Kimetric is an outfit from Argentina, founded by brother and sister Alejandro and Florencia Muther, that's finding ways to put Kinect to work for store owners to help them manage their business by collecting customer data and creating contextually aware store displays. You see, many retailers are bereft of customer behaviorial info aside from knowing what patrons buy at the register. By using Kinect, however, Kimetric can acquire a wealth of consumer data, such as: how many people stop to view a product, customer movements within the store, what products they handle, but don't purchase, plus the height, size, age and sex of those customers. Additionally, Kinect can identify which product a customer is handling and trigger a nearby display to show corresponding item information.
Kimetric uses one or more Kinect sensors strategically placed throughout an establishment to gather data tailored to individual store requirements, and provides that info to store owners via cloud-based portal or in-store solution. For those of you concerned about such a system invading your privacy, we were assured that it neither tracks individuals nor collects specific customer info, and the information gathered is only available to retailers in aggregate form.
In addition to aiding the sellers of things improve their methods for moving merchandise on the back end, Kinect's helping consumers find what they need in a far more direct way in the fashion industry. Styku's a start-up that aims to put virtual fitting rooms in homes and retail outlets. We got to speak with Raj Sareen, the founder and CEO of Styku, and he talked a bit about how Styku got its start. Sareen comes from a family of tech-savvy fashionistas who created Tukatech, a firm specializing in digital pattern making and 3D prototyping systems for apparel makers. With a background in digital imaging, Sareen set out to make an inexpensive body scanner that could utilize Tukatech's technology to better serve the clothes-buying public. His proof-of-concept was crafted from 22 webcams and some custom code, but when Kinect came out, he realized that he could use the sensor bar instead.
In retail guise, the virtual fitting room works using a couple of Kinects to scan your body in about three seconds to glean your measurements and create your digital doppelgänger. (Those at home with only one Kinect can do the same by doing a slow twirl in front of the sensor bar.) Measurements in hand, the system can then find clothes in your size from a retailer -- or facilitate the creation of custom threads, depending on the use case -- and virtually try them on via the avatar. Now, the big difference between Styku and other, similar Kinet-based clothing solutions, is the fact that it provides more accurate fitting by using Tukatech's 3D cloth physics simulation software. That technology not only lets you see how the clothes will look on your body, but also provides a tension heat map to see precisely where an item fits too loosely or too tightly. The best part is, once you've made your avatar, its measurements are a part of your Styku account that's accessible on the web and at participating online and brick and mortar merchants.
All four of these start-ups are still in the midst of being mentored by Microsoft's finest business and technical minds, but they're currently on schedule to pitch their ideas to a room full of deep pockets come June 28th. That's when the Accelerator program finishes up, and each will take the next step towards turning their Kinect-minded creativity into successful (and presumably profitable) businesses.