Startups Try to Help Microsoft’s Kinect Grow Up Beyond Gaming

Courtesy of Microsoft via Bloomberg

Jintronix is a startup that sees Kinect as a way to help rehabilitate patients who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injuries.

Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor lets gamers wield a light saber or slice falling fruit ninja-style, but Jintronix sees a more serious use — rehabilitating patients who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury.

Jintronix is among 11 startups housed at Microsoft as part of the software giant’s 13-week accelerator program, which is designed to help developers build apps around Kinect for Windows, a version of the Xbox device that has been tweaked for the personal computer to broaden the technology’s reach in the home and office.

Microsoft already has several hundred companies writing applications for Kinect for Windows, but the company wanted an accelerator program that harnessed the imagination of the startup world, which is often more daring in its endeavors.

“They’ll look at problems that are bigger risks than regular companies,” said Craig Eisler, general manager of Kinect for Windows.

Developers are key to Microsoft’s ambition of making Kinect more than a gaming device. In order for Kinect to play a central role in the future of computing, Microsoft needs startups to build applications that make gesture-based controls and 3-D scanning important to non-gamers.

Microsoft isn’t alone. San Francisco-based Leap Motion today announced a $70 3-D motion control device and is seeking developers to build applications around its technology.

For a company that lacks the app developer appeal of an Apple, Kinect has been a bright spot for Microsoft. Nearly 500 startups applied for the accelerator program, which is co-hosted by TechStars, a program that nurtures young companies. Whether or not venture capitalists and customers will also flock to this technology remains to be seen.

So far, very few consumers have Kinect for Windows, which came out in February. Instead of targeting customers directly, Microsoft is relying on app developers to buy Kinects and distribute them. In the case of Jintronix, those customers could be hospitals or physical therapists.

Jintronix was founded in 2010 by MIT student Justin Tan, whose father was left paralyzed on one side of his body by a stroke. Tan saw how the amount of time spent on rehabilitation was greatly reduced once a patient was discharged from the hospital, said Lex Youssef, the Montreal company’s chief technology officer. Not helping matters was that in-home rehab can be expensive, he said.

So Tan, along with several high school friends, created computer hardware designed for in-home rehab, said Youssef. It’s now built on Kinect for Windows, which does a better job of tracking a patient’s motion and can tell if a person is doing the exercises correctly, he said. The patient’s therapist can track progress and analyze data without a visit.

Another startup in the program is Ubi Interactive, which is developing a Kinect-powered projector that can turn a conference room wall, store window or even the sneeze-guard at the salad bar into a touch display. Ubi was started by graduates of the Technical University of Munich. They too had initially built their own device, which was expensive to make. As soon as Kinect for the Xbox came out, they started hacking it for their product, said Anup Chathoth, the company’s CEO.

Meanwhile, NConnex has created an app that lets people scan a room’s furniture and other objects, to help them design that space. The company’s team, several of whom met in the robotics lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, plans to sell the technology to interior designers and furniture stores, said Shichao Ou, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

The future of these startups will partly depend on how June 28 goes. That’s when the program ends and entrepreneurs meet with potential investors.

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