Hacking the Kinect & How Not to do PR

by on November 18, 2010 · 4 comments

Kinect has been hacked, or has it? If you’ve been following the story about the release of Microsoft’s new controller-free interface for the XBOX 360, you’re probably a bit confused as to exactly has happened. But don’t worry, so is Microsoft.

Shortly—very shortly as a matter of fact—after Kinect was released last week, enterprising nerds snatched up the $150 device and started repurposing its exception hardware for all sorts of unintended purposes. Rather than waving their hands frantically in their living rooms and unintentionally injuring loved ones (HT Brooke Oberwetter), these geeks were using Microsoft’s innovative camera technology to create new ways of interacting with their computers, methods for capturing 3D objects, and iPhone-like image manipulation—and that’s just the beginning.

Microsoft’s reaction to an enthusiastic group of incredibly tech-savvy consumers taking such an interest in their products? First, Redmond issued a warning about the dangers of hacking.

According to Gamespot’s run-down of Microsoft’s evolving reaction the company first issued this statement to CNET:

Microsoft, however, seems actively hostile to the idea. “Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products,” a company spokesperson said. “With Kinect, Microsoft built in numerous hardware and software safeguards designed to reduce the chances of product tampering. Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.”

Shortly after this statement was released, a slightly softer statement was issued:

Kinect for Xbox 360 has not been hacked–in any way–as the software and hardware that are part of Kinect for Xbox 360 have not been modified. What has happened is someone has created drivers that allow other devices to interface with the Kinect for Xbox 360. The creation of these drivers, and the use of Kinect for Xbox 360 with other devices, is unsupported. We strongly encourage customers to use Kinect for Xbox 360 with their Xbox 360 to get the best experience possible.

So, Microsoft has softened its tone in rather short order, abandoning its talk of law enforcement and instead taking the bold of position of “we won’t support your hacked Kinect.”

But what could Microsoft do anyway? Microsoft could attempt to shut down hackers using the DMCA. Even though none of the DIY Kinect-heads out there claim to have modified the hardware—which Microsoft itself acknowledge in the quote above—software involved in getting the Kinect to play nice with PCs running Windows, Linux, or OS X may circumvent anti-tampering provisions integrated into the device by Microsoft. This sort of circumvention could trigger the DMCA, turning these awesome hacks into contraband and the awesome—if not pathetically nerdy—hackers into outlaws.

Though what good would pursuing these hackers in court do for Microsoft? Their handling of the Kinect hacks have already been a textbook example of how not to run your PR department, and a lawsuit would make matters much worse, taking away attention from an awesome products and instead focusing public attention on Microsoft suing a bunch of well-meaning nerd

Apple would have never issued a statement of the kind the Microsoft did, let alone the two different versions. Instead, why not just let hackers be hackers, score yourself some geek cred by turning a blind eye to a small group of folks doing really innovative things with your product? Or better yet, why not run your own contest for the best hacks of the Kinect with the hopes that you might be able to buy up some geek’s homebrew infrared awesomeness and make your product even better?

But of course, Microsoft is Microsoft, and not Apple, let alone a cool crowd-sourcing company like Lego. So we may have to brace ourselves for Microsoft protecting its cross-subsidized Kinect by attacking the people who seem to love it most.

Special Thanks: I was inspired to post today after a guilt trip that seemed to last about as long as the flight I’m currently on (thanks, gogo infligth Internet!) from fellow TLFer and my newest Mercatus colleague, Adam Thierer.  Thanks for the inspiration, Evil Spock.

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