Video Kinect: The telepresent under the tree

Easter eggs in December? When Santa brings the XBox Kinect, cheap, sophisticated video conferencing comes along for the ride.

Video Kinect: The telepresent under the tree
Over the weekend I picked up our Kinect Sensor; at $149 including a the Kinect Adventures game, it was a no-brainer addition to our existing XBox 360. After a few obligatory but brief software updates and a simple camera and audio calibration process, Kinect is humming along beautifully and I'm basking in the glow of family gratitude and kudos for my A/V installation skills (hey, I can insert a USB cable with the best of them).

But there was an odd déjà vu every time I looked at the new sensor/mic/camera contraption. I'd seen something like this before...but where? Then it hit me: in a far distant time and context, at conference tables seating 40 or more, little devices like this had been the kind of whoppingly pricey infrastructure investment that drove law firm partners to distraction. The Kinect sensor looks just like an enterprise video conferencing device.

As it turns out, the Kinect doesn't just look like a duck, it quacks like one too - or rather, it leaves the quacking to you, and tracks you through the room should you also be seized by the urge to waddle. Video Kinect is the kind of impressive that's difficult to convey: it's like Microsoft has buckled a little time-travel wormhole onto the XBox, that when accessed shoots you a quarter-century ahead. Kinect's auto-zoom focus finds you and follows you around the room, if necessary. The mic just works, picking up intonations and inflections from over eight feet away. It's really, really cool.

And as these things go, it's a really, really cheap addition to a device a lot of people already own. If the Cisco Umi was doomed before, Video Kinect just drank its milkshake. Video Kinect requires an XBox Live Gold subscription (that's $9.99 US/month, or $59.99/year), and it's a $149 hardware addition to any of the 39 million XBox 360 consoles out there in the world. Compare Umi, at four times as much for the hardware, and five times as much for the service - and no river-rafting or Netflix. Jason Perlow is probably right that we're not likely to see a rush to telepresence systems as ends in themselves. But tack cheap, sophisticated video conferencing onto an already popular entertainment platform and you've got a win. Old skool video conferencing connects dispersed employees over long distances. Families, friends, and small businesses will want to do this too if it's suddenly and incidentally just there for them, untethered from desk and computer monitor.

I mention small businesses because the business appeal of videoconferencing this cheap and full-featured is undeniable, but so are XBox Live's terms of service: "You must not...use the Service for commercial purposes (except as expressly permitted by us)." (The Code of Conduct bars commercial use too.) But nobody reads those things anyway right? [poll id="11"]