Posted by Bart EppenauerChief Patent Counsel, Microsoft
Each year, the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation presents its Annual National Inventor of the Year Award to individuals that contribute significantly to the practice of Intellectual Property. The Award recognizes “Outstanding Achievement in the Fields of Innovation, Creativity, and IP Rights” and fosters the spirit of American innovation and highlights the protection offered to inventors by the patent system. This year, its 39th year, the Foundation honored Alex Kipman of Microsoft for the invention of Kinect, a breakthrough motion sensing input device developed for the Xbox 360 video game system and Windows PCs at a ceremony at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
I had a chance to sit down with Alex on the eve of the award ceremony and talk with him about intellectual property, the role it plays in his organization at Microsoft, the “Kinect Effect” and some of the cool things we might expect to see in the future.
How do you see IP and patents playing a role in your group at Microsoft?
Microsoft in general is pretty wired to protect our inventions. At the end of the day, we’re a company of IP. We’re not a brick and mortar company where we have a durable good – our goods are zeroes and ones. If you look across all Microsoft products, being able to protect the creativity through IP is something that’s ingrained in all of us. I previously worked in Microsoft’s Server and Tools business and the Windows business and throughout all of my time in those positions, from very early stages of creation we’re thinking about not only what we’re making but how we protect the unique components that allow us to differentiate in the market. To me, that is a very important role that IP plays.
As you look at Kinect today, what technologies that are patented do you think really stand out to make Kinect deliver the magic that it does?
The palette of Kinect is about three things in general – deep human understanding, identity recognition and voice recognition. In each one of those areas, there is a lot of seminal IP that allows us to build a foundation for natural input going forward. Voice recognition is a good example. In a majority of voice recognition systems, you are usually pretty close to the microphone, like on a phone or PC. All of those systems are usually push to talk. With Kinect, we don’t have a button to push – it’s an always listening system. This is a very new space. In our case, people are very far away from the microphones. Our environments aren’t quiet, unlike phones that mute everything around you. And the microphone is able to recognize someone saying “Xbox Bing Harry Potter.” This is a very interesting IP-laden area.
Identity recognition is the same kind of idea. It’s hard enough just to be able to see people in a well-lit environment with an HD camera. In our case, it’s not a well-lit environment. As a matter of fact, most of the time users of Kinect are in a dark environment and not sitting nearby the console. In most identity recognition systems, people tend to be physically different. Unlike homes, where the people you are trying to recognize are people similar to you; it’s your brother, sister, dad, mom. From a facial geometry perspective, the geometry should be pretty much the same. There is some very interesting IP in that area as well.
After Kinect was launched, there was a proliferation of alternative uses outside of the living room, outside of gaming, outside of entertainment, which is referred to as the “Kinect Effect.” Was this something that you or the team foresaw as you were developing Kinect?
I don’t know that we foresaw as much as we hoped. At the end of the day, what the team was saying was “Hey, we are going to create a new palette of paint colors and paint brushes and we are going to give it to people and see what they paint with it.” You hope you are going to inspire people all over the place to pick up the palette and go paint, and then you just sit back, and relax and hopefully see the beautiful things they are painting. We tried to create a very fertile playground for them to be able to do that in the types of paint colors and paintbrushes you let them have.
If you are trying to create understanding of the world, and it’s never been done before, it’s usually good to constrain the problem. So that is exactly what we did with Kinect. We decided to keep it to one environment – the living room. People are typically in their living room to be entertained, to have a story told, to have fun. It’s a great beginning of a journey, and it’s one that provides environmental constraints. Now, the hope is that if that works, and we learn from it, we can very quickly thereafter unconstrain the problem and have Kinect go outside of the living room to new environments. And that’s what we saw happening in the 12 months that followed Kinect’s launch. Once you are taking Kinect to new places, the fundamental premise remains the same; it is still about human understanding, but now in diverse environments from education to healthcare to any number of cool places.
You touched on earlier some of the cool things we might expect to see in the future, so to the extent you can share anything about what future generations of Kinect might look like, what can you tell us, what can we expect to see in the future?
You are going to see a lot! One of the things that people should think about is that for Kinect, it is less about a point in time and more about a state of mind. At the end of the day, it’s about the team you build. A team working on the right problems, with the right attitude at the right time. When you start a journey like we did for Kinect, it’s about learning as a team. So, if anything, you should see and look at Kinect as the tip of an iceberg that will only get more inspirational over time.