Kinect is one of Microsoft’s biggest successes in years.But it almost didn’t happen.
A couple members of the Kinect team, hardware VP Todd Holmdahl and Microsoft researcher Mihai Budiu, were on hand last week to accept an award for innovation from the Churchill Club. We caught up with them a few days later.
As Holmdahl tells it, by early 2009, a lot of people in Microsoft knew the Xbox team was working on something really amazing, and they had people starting to come over from other groups.
But there were also a lot of sceptics who said that Microsoft’s vision for Kinect was impossible with current technology.
So an engineer named Ben Kilgore created an “Everest Program” — so named because the team likened it to planning an assault on Mt. Everest.
His goal was to assemble the brightest minds at Microsoft to take a hard look at the technical challenges and prove that they could get over it.
His timeline: one month.
As Holmdahl explained:
“There were a bunch of things we needed to figure out in order to deliver great experiences. Voice recognition was a big one, could we, with this open mic, could we get the word error rate low enough….It took a month with the smartest people we had. At the end of this, we thought, this really does look possible. There are algorithms out there that we believe we be applicable to get these things into production.
The team finished its work in time for Microsoft to announce Kinect at the May 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo. After that, it was committed to delivering.
The company still had a ton of technical work ahead of it in the next year and a half, including figuring out the skeletal tracking algorithms used to recognise people — “it’s one of those things you can get to work on eight or nine of 10 people, but to get it to work on vast majority was a lot of work” — as well as speech recognition and hardware production.
But without that initial push, and the public commitment at E3, Microsoft might never have followed through.
It also helps that the product was just amazingly cool, even in development.
We have a very good financial team and they wanted to understand where all this money was going and how we were going to be able to deliver value on it. The thing I thought really worked for this program, was we could show people the possibilities, people could just walk up and play with it…it was fun. Whether you were in finance, or an engineer, or a six-year old kid, you got the appeal of it. And I do think that alleviated a lot of the financial pressures.
What about Steve Ballmer?
Holmdahl said he first talked about the project to Ballmer in early 2008, and showed it to him later that summer. “He was always supportive.”
Also, don’t miss: The Story Behind Kinect, Microsoft’s Newest Billion-Dollar Business.
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