Windows everywhere and Kinect. Those were the themes of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's keynote address Wednesday night at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Kinect, the controller for the Xbox 360 game console that uses gestures or voice, has been a huge success at a time when Microsoft's efforts in other booming areas -- such as smartphones and tablets -- are less than stellar. Ballmer noted the company's original forecast of five million Kinects sold by the end of the holiday season was wildly surpassed, with more than eight million sold within the first 60 days.
Forget Remote Control
Ron Forbes, head of the company's interactive entertainment business, joined Ballmer to tout Kinect's future. He demonstrated voice-directed controlling of movie selections on Xbox LIVE's Zune, interspersed with gestural control. "All I have to do is wave to bring up the playback controls," Forbes said, eliminating the need to remember "where I left the remote control."
He showed similar gestural and voice control for music, and announced that Netflix and Hulu Plus will now be Kinect-controllable on Xbox.
Ballmer showed the new Avatar Kinect feature, which uses facial recognition to add a user's facial expressions to on-screen characters. The feature will be available free to Xbox LIVE Gold members in the spring.
Surface 'Can See'
Angiulo also showed a new version of Microsoft Surface, designed for large touch surfaces such as a restaurant tabletop. The new Surface, developed with Samsung, is only four inches deep and, instead of requiring camera sensors as in the first generation, this version uses a new technology called PixelSense.
PixelSense, said Angiulo, has infrared sensors across the screen, with "every single pixel actually acting as a camera." In other words, he said, the Surface device itself "can actually see." Angiulo said new applications could include kiosks.
Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for consumer technology at the NPD Group, said the subtext behind the presentation of the new Surface is that "Microsoft knows how to do touch interfaces." At last year's CES keynote address, Ballmer showed a Windows-based tablet from Hewlett-Packard that was subsequently downgraded by HP, reportedly because Windows wasn't optimized for a tablet. Since then, Apple's iPad has exploded the category, but Microsoft has yet to emerge as a player.
Rubin noted that porting Windows to ARM processors, even though it is 24 to 36 months out, "signals a drive by Microsoft's hardware partners to take advantage of lower-powered, lightweight devices."