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Kinect team scoop the £50,000 MacRobert Award

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Gamers across the globe have benefited from Microsoft Research team’s innovation

A team of Cambridge engineers has won the £50,000 MacRobert Award for its work on developing a motion-capture solution which led to the creation of the fastest-selling consumer electronics device in history.

The five engineers from Microsoft Research won the award for their work on Kinect for Xbox 360, a human/computer interaction console system that allows controller-free gaming. In the two months after its launch in November 2010, Kinect sold eight million devices.

The team became involved with the project in September 2008 after receiving a request for help from Microsoft colleagues in the US who were trying to develop controller-free computing. Before Kinect, equipment for motion-capture was commercially available but required instrumentation of the moving human subject in the form of markers placed on all body joints. Previous attempts at markerless motion-capture would suffer from an error accumulation problem that would eventually lead to failure under rapid body motion, meaning an effective system was not available.

The Microsoft Research laboratory applied machine learning techniques to build a capability to analyse depth images independently. It classified pixels in each depth image as belonging to one of 31 body parts, drawing on previous work of the Cambridge laboratory on the recognition of objects in photographs. The classifier was trained and tested using a very large database of pre-classified images, covering varied poses and body types. It was engineered so efficiently that it managed to use only a fraction of the total available computing capacity – essential to the practical success of Kinect. 

“It was an incredibly secret project to be involved on,” said Andrew Fitzgibbon, principal research scientist at the Cambridge laboratory. “We only had a small team working on it. At one stage there was a Eureka moment when we thought ‘yes, this is really going to work’. It was a very exciting project to have been involved with.”

While gamers across the globe have benefited greatly from the team’s innovation, the future uses of Kinect-style controller-free technology could move into other areas. Microsoft has announced the planned launch of Kinect for Microsoft Windows, first for academics and hobbyists and later on a commercial basis. This will broaden its scope to the control of computers and other machines, at a distance, by speech and gesture, making technologies more readily accessible to the people who use them. Surgeons will be among the first users to benefit – Kinect will enable them to use a hands-free computer in the operating theatre.

“The general principle has huge application,” said Fitzgibbon. “And the Cambridge laboratory will play a part in that development process as it specialises in blue-skies research in areas such as object recognition and machine learning.”

Microsoft beat off competition from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Jaguar Land Rover and Radio Design to win the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert award. 

John Robinson, chairman of the judges, said: “Everything about Microsoft Research’s Kinect project made it a worthy winner. Yet again, British engineers have solved a seemingly intractable problem that stumped the rest of the world – motion-capture in real time has made Kinect hugely successful and what was developed as a game is poised to revolutionise the way we use computers in the future.”

Fitzgibbon said that he and his colleagues were delighted to have won the award, and that ultimately they hoped it would lead to more youngsters becoming interested in computer science and software engineering. “These disciplines can tend to get overlooked,” he said. “If our award means one extra schoolchild gets interested in software engineering, then that will be wonderful news,” he said. 

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