British Kinect developers win RAE’s highest innovation award

British researchers who helped develop Microsoft’s motion-capture games controller, Kinect, have won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s highest innovation award.

The five engineers from Microsoft Research Cambridge received the £50,000 MacRobert Award last night at the RAE’s annual awards dinner in London.

Their work on Kinect — which has sold more than 10 million units and is the fastest-selling consumer electronics device in history — solved a major problem with its system of tracking users’ body movements to control software on the Xbox 360 console.

The team, led by Microsoft Research’s managing director Prof Andrew Blake, created a training programme so that the device could learn to follow even the most random movements and recognise people no matter what their body size or shape.

‘The US Xbox team had gone pretty far [with the technology] but it had a few failings,’ Cambridge research scientist Dr Jamie Shotton told The Engineer.

‘After a few minutes the whole system would break down and lose track of your body because it was trying to predict where you were [in the present] based on your motion in the past.

‘That’s all very well when your motion is predictable, but when it’s very fast or you change direction suddenly everything becomes very unpredictable. And once the system had lost track of you, you would have to restart.’

To solve this problem, and to help Kinect recognise body parts no matter what they look like, the Cambridge team created a database of millions of computer-generated images to train the motion-capture system.

This allows Kinect to study each group of pixels in an image and work out what part of the body they resemble, gradually building up a 3D picture of the person and how their bodyparts are positioned.

By replacing the need for people to wear motion-capture markers, the Kinect has created the possibility for more widespread use of 3D cameras — and numerous non-gaming applications for the device have since been created.

Several research groups, including one at Microsoft Research Cambridge, are working on ways to use the Kinect in keyhole surgery — either to control images on a computer screen without touching anything or to give better control of robotic instruments inside the body.

John Robinson, chairman of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: ‘Yet again, British engineers have solved a seemingly intractable problem that stumped the rest of the world.

‘Motion capture in real time has made Kinect hugely successful and what was originally developed as a game is now poised to revolutionise the way we use computers in the future.’

Microsoft’s Kinect team also included principal research scientist Dr Andrew Fitzgibbon, senior research engineer Toby Sharp and software development engineer Mat Cook.

The other projects nominated for the MacRobert Award were:

  • ceramic personal armour designed to protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and NP Aerospace;
  • Jaguar’s lightweight aluminium body for the new XJ series, which the company says has the world’s most environmentally friendly car-production process; and
  • a universal combiner from Radio Design, which allows up to three mobile-phone operators to combine the outputs of one 2G and two 3G base stations on a single antenna.

The MacRobert Award, first presented in 1969, aims to recognise the successful development of innovative ideas in engineering and demonstrate the importance of engineers in contributing to national prosperity and international prestige.

The Engineer Technology & Innovation Awards 2011 is open for entries. Click here to read more.