April 13, 2011 at 5:06 PM ET
What do you get when you cross a WorldWide Telescope with a Kinect motion-sensing game controller? You get the “universe at your fingertips,” according to Microsoft Research’s Curtis Wong, who demonstrated the gesture-controlled cosmos today at the MIX11 conference in Las Vegas.
Actually, having the universe at your fingertips is how Wong has thought of the freely available WorldWide Telescope project since it was first unveiled in 2008. The software, which is freely available through a Web-based interface and as a standalone program, displays the night sky and lets users zoom in on cosmic imagery from a wide variety of sources. You can even go on 3-D fly-throughs of distant galaxies, or create your own tours of celestial hot spots.
But back then, Wong was talking in terms of fingertips tapping on a keyboard or guiding a computer mouse. Now, thanks to the Microsoft's Kinect controller, he can control the cosmos on a trio of high-definition video projectors, just by waving his hands in the air. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
"If I just move my fingers out about a half-inch, the earth suddenly begins zooming in, more and more. ... Then I bring my fingers together, and the earth retreats," Wong told me.
The effect is similar to the hand-waving tricks that Tom Cruise's character used to manipulate virtual displays in the movie "Minority Report" — only better, at least in Wong's estimation. "First of all, Tom Cruise had to wear these funny gloves with lights on them," Wong said. "We don't have to do that. ... We have a lot more control than he did. He had to move things on a 2-D surface and rotate them."
Subtle gestures can be coupled with voice commands to navigate through a 3-D computer model of the universe. You can set a planet spinning or change the perspective on our Local Group of galaxies just by moving your fingers, hands or arms. "The motions that we're doing with the universe are fairly subtle," Wong said.
The sky's not the limit
The system capitalizes on Kinect's multiple-sensor, hands-free gaming system, which processes depth data as well as audio and 2-D video as a way of letting users interact with 3-D virtual worlds through gestures, jumps and other body movements. The system has already been hacked to create virtual-reality superheroes, sign-language translators, seeing-eye guides for the blind and even touch-sensitive robo-surgeons.
In recognition of Kinect's hackability, Microsoft is planning to release a non-commercial software development kit for Kinect sometime this spring. Anoop Gupta, distinguished scientist at Microsoft Research, told me that the kit is "on track" to ship within weeks. Wong declined to lay out a timetable for making the Kinect connection available to WorldWide Telescope users, but it would make sense if it rolled out at about the same time as the software development kit.
The most obvious setting for a Kinect-enabled planetarium program would be in a classroom — or, come to think of it, in an actual planetarium, where a teacher or guide could control a sky show from center stage rather than from behind a computer monitor. Home users could conceivably get a kick out of flying through the virtual solar system via a Kinect controller and a big-screen TV. And there might be an eventual payoff for PC users as well. Gupta told me that Kinect's developers were thinking about "not just the 10-foot experience, but the 2-foot experience."
Of course, the new possibilities would apply to PC gamers as well: In addition to the WorldWide Telescope demo, today's MIX11 session featured a Kinect-powered "Wall Panic" PC game, in which players contort their bodies to match a series of Tetris-style shapes that flash on a large screen.
Looking farther down the software development road, Gupta gushed about potential applications ranging from yoga instruction to remote-controlled robotics. "I think the possibilities are endless," he told me. "We are looking to the community to see how they put this to use."
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