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Kinect 'hack' lets user recreate himself in 3-D

  • A California researcher used his Kinect to recreate himself in three dimensions
  • Efforts to breach Kinect's hardware follow long tradition of cannibalizing technology
  • Hackers say their work can bring technological advances and even benefit manufacturers

(CNN) -- A couple of years ago Oliver Kreylos was looking for a cheap 3-D camera when he heard about a company developing a device that would retail at around $200 -- perfect for his project looking at ways of enhancing video communications.

Kreylos, a researcher in virtual reality at the University of California Davis, approached the company only to be told it had just been bought out by U.S. tech giant Microsoft, which wanted to use the device for its Xbox game console.

The device became Kinect, a $150 motion sensor that plugs into the Xbox 360 allowing users play games simply by moving their body.

When it hit the shelves -- selling more than one million units in 10 days -- Kreylos says he paid it no mind, believing it would be too well encrypted to be of any use to him and dismissing as pointless internet prizes to "hack" it.

But earlier this month he was proved wrong by a Spanish hacker named Hector Martin, who successfully patched into Kinect's data feeds to allow it to be hooked up to computers.

"When I saw what Hector had done, I literally dropped everything I did and biked to my local game store and bought one right away," he said. "I knew I was going to get the 3-D reconstruction I've wanted for such a long time."

Once Microsoft sees all the creativity and innovation they'll embrace it
--Phillip Torrone, Adafruit

A YouTube video of Kreylos using his Kinect to recreate himself in three dimensions has gone viral, watched more than 1.5 million times. Others have followed, excitedly seizing upon published source code to create their own "hacked" Kinect projects.

Kreylos wasn't the only one, so far the device has also been used to allow robots to see, create mid-air 3D sketches and numerous other projects reminiscent of the technology used in sci-fi film "Minority Report."

Such dabbling with Kinect follows a long tradition of hacking into hardware that has already seen enthusiasts adapt other console controllers such as a Nintendo Wii surfboard for their own purposes.

These efforts -- including some more commercially invasive attempts to retool hardware to accept pirated software -- are often heavily resisted by manufacturers who often seek legal injunctions to prevent their propagation.

But those behind attempts to "hack" the Kinect and other devices insist their work seeks only to push the boundaries of existing technology and not only offers no threat to manufacturers but could bring them benefits if they embrace it.

At first, Microsoft didn't see it that way. The company released a statement to technology news site CNET saying it would "work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant."

It later updated this with a second statement issued to CNN which read: "Kinect for Xbox 360 has not been hacked -- in any way -- as the software and hardware that are part of Kinect have not been modified."

Phillip Torrone one of the co-sponsors of a $1,000 bounty offered by Adafruit, a do-it-yourself electronics company, was so infuriated by Microsoft's responses that he upped the payment, first to $2,000, then to $3,000.

"This was a ridiculous reaction from Microsoft and we immediately raised the bounty *twice*," he told CNN by e-mail.

"They know reverse engineering and creating open source drivers are perfectly legal and safe -- their response only inspired more people to work harder, faster and create more amazing 'hacks' in a short period of time."

Microsoft did not respond to specific questions about this issue for this story.

But the company appears to have softened its stance. In an interview last week on NPR, a Microsoft exec said she was "inspired" by the tinkering and added the company would not seek to prosecute anybody for making open source drivers for Xbox Kinect.

Kreylos said, he too was baffled by Microsoft's initial reaction, particularly given the ease with which the Kinect's source code was uncovered.

"I'm a little bit surprised. I don't really understand what they're doing. It might be the cleverest marketing ploy since the invention of sliced bread.

"I was fully expecting Microsoft to have buttoned down this thing, and it would have been easy for them. This thing is a full-blown computer and they could have put military grade encryption on it to keep people like me from getting our grubby hands on it, but they didn't."

Kraylos and other hackers say some wider technological solutions have only come about largely thanks to efforts to reverse-engineer store-bought hardware.

"The nice thing about off-the-shelf devices is that they are typically highly developed, well-refined and economical single-point solutions to everyday problems," said another computer expert with wide experience of hacking. The expert was speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The spirit of taking off-the-shelf devices and hacking them goes far beyond just the world of electronics; it's done all the time in situations ranging from Third World economies, such as Cuba's, where they need to make do with what little they have."

But can these developments be of any real value to Microsoft and the other companies who unwittingly hand their technology over to be prodded and probed?

At the very least, said Kreylos, with Microsoft making a profit on every Kinect it sells, it stands to gain from demand added by what Torrone calls "the modern community of hackers, tinkerers, scientists and engineers."

And perhaps, adds Torrone, "once Microsoft sees all the creativity and innovation they'll embrace it -- just like they've slowly over time embraced open source in a variety of (small) ways."


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