Microsoft announces Avatar Kinect, Kinect-enabled Hulu Plus and more

Rick Wilking / Reuters

Steve Ballmer appears as Kinect avatar during his CES keynote

Last night Microsoft held its CES 2011 Keynote, and one of its three main topics was the Xbox 360 and the Kinect Sensor. Microsoft had aimed to sell 5 million units of Kinect by the end of the year, but managed to surpass that expectation substantially. In the first 60 days of availability, 8 million Kinect Sensors were sold. That’s a lot of hand waving!

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Rather than talk about games, the focus of this segment of the Keynote was the Xbox as entertainment hub. It was re-affirmed that Hulu Plus was coming to the Xbox in the coming months and it will be Kinect aware. Xbox’s Netflix Streaming, Zune Marketplace and ESPN apps will all also become Kinect enabled. Welcome news but the demos were all pretty familiar: using voice and hand gestures to control your media. The most interesting part of the Xbox segment was the introduction of Avatar Kinect. Functionally this isn’t anything too special; it’s just another elaborate chat room, really. But the technology was very impressive. The Kinect sensor translates your actions onto that of your Xbox Avatar at a level of fidelity we haven’t seen before now (at least not on the Xbox, some of the Kinect hacks going around come close). How precise is it? Kinect can translate mouth and even eyebrow movements. Avatar Kinect of course supports voice chat and your avatar's mouth movements will be lip synced to your voice. Raise your eyebrows in surprise and your avatar does the same. This wasn't a live demo (we saw a Ballmer avatar but not the real Ballmer at the same time, the rest of the demo was video) but taken at face value it was pretty cool. We'll see what the reality is like 'in the wild.' Another subtle thing: it works with you sitting down; maybe this is the first step towards using Kinect to enhance traditional Xbox gaming. We don’t all want to leap and frolic in front of our TV when it’s time to play games. Avatar Kinect will launch this spring and it’ll be free for Xbox Live Gold Members.

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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