Top 5 Kinect Hacks

The Xbox Kinect has taken the world of gaming by storm -- but hackers love it, too. See more video game system pictures.
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With the release of the Kinect for Xbox 360 (the first hands-free game controller) in November 2010, Microsoft was poised to completely transform the gaming industry. The Wii's motion-sensing controller had opened the door to the future of gaming when it was released; Kinect blew that door off its hinges. Gamers everywhere were thinking about the full-immersion possibilities of gaming's next step.

But the real revolution stirred by the Kinect had nothing to do with gaming. Hackers immediately saw potential in the device far beyond its intended use as a gaming accessory. On Kinect's release date, Adafruit Industries, an open-source hardware development group, posted a $3,000 bounty for the first successful, open-source driver to make use of Kinect's motion-sensing technology outside of its Xbox 360 application [source: Adafruit]. The bounty was claimed by a hacker who didn't even own an Xbox and managed to create a Linux-based camera driver for the Kinect in about three hours. The contest is over, but independent developers continue to find new uses for the Kinect every day, some of which are pretty darned cool. Join the fun as we scope out five Kinect hacks that transcend the device's gaming roots.


To see the hack that's on every world-domination-plotting villain's wish list, you must continue to the next page. Muahahahahahaha!

5: Evil Genius Simulator

What better motivator for a hack than bringing fun to your fellow brainiacs? At Maker Faire UK 2011, a pub-hatched hack came to life rather quickly when Tom Wyatt and friends conceived of the idea to hook a Kinect up to a pair of Tesla coils [source: Frank].

In simple terms, a Tesla coil (named for its inventor, Nikola Tesla) is a transformer that produces extremely high-voltage, high-frequency electrical currents. When the electricity is discharged, sparks are emitted. You've probably seen this effect employed in movies. By using the Kinect's motion-tracking technology to correlate user movement to the frequency of the Tesla coils' current, this hack created the illusion of lightning shooting from the user's hands. Suddenly, even the most mild-mannered gent is transformed into Lord Palpatine.


Don't let all that power go to your head! The next hack in the lineup has the potential to be a real life-saver.

4: Robotic Surgery Assistant

Robotic surgery suites like this one may soon add a Kinect to their arsenal of tools.
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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to perform surgery? How about performing surgery without your sense of touch? Doctors do it every day with the use of robotic surgical tools. This Kinect hack adds a new level of precision to the robotics-assisted operating room.

Graduate students at the University of Washington are developing a force-feedback device for surgeons performing procedures with robotic tools. While robotics-assisted surgeries are not a new concept, there has always been a problem: Doctors using the instruments don't receive tactile feedback from their equipment. During non-robotic surgeries, doctors employ their sense of touch to guide their movements; in the minimally invasive robotic procedures, they've always had to rely on cameras.


This ingenious hack uses the Kinect to map virtual force fields around the vital organs of patients, preventing accidental incisions, adding a new layer of safety and providing surgeons with improved, real-time feedback as they work. In addition to advancing the field of robotic surgery, this enhancement also saves thousands of dollars, as other options are estimated to run around $50,000 [source: Dunn].

Does the thought of surgery make you squeamish? Fear not! The next hack is nothing but fun.

3: As a PS3 Controller

Before this hack, PS3 users had to use the PlayStation Move controller for motion-control gaming.
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Owners of Sony's PlayStation 3 game console have it rough. While all their Xbox 360-owning friends get to flap their arms around unencumbered to play games using their Kinect peripherals, PS3 owners are forced to use the PlayStation Move, which consists of remote controllers with Ping-Pong ball-esque orbs mounted on the ends. What's a player to do? Take matters into his own hands by getting the controllers out of them, that's what.

Shantanu Goel has converted the motion data collected by the Kinect into the format normally used by a PS3 controller. While his hack is still in its infancy in terms of development, Mr. Goel has posted footage online showing his handiwork in action as he works his way through the popular, first-person shooter game "Killzone 3." "Killzone 3" was the first action game to take advantage of the PlayStation Move controllers, and this hack shows players that, with a little ingenuity, they don't need handheld controllers at all.


Feel completely in the dark when it comes to action gaming? Perhaps the next hack will help you find your way.

2: Navigation Aid for the Visually Impaired

The white cane used by many visually-impaired people may soon be replaced with a Kinect-based alternative.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

If this hack from University of Konstanz students Michael Zöllner and Stephan Huber reaches the open market, life could get a lot simpler for the visually impaired. As part of a graduate project, this dynamic duo has developed a helmet-mounted Kinect setup that acts as eyes for visually challenged users. The Kinect is combined with a prototype, vibrotactile waist belt to digitally analyze the wearer's indoor surroundings and give audio navigation commands to guide him or her through the area [source: Zöllner and Huber]. It's very similar to the way a GPS system in your car directs you to turn left or right at the appropriate point in your journey (hopefully).

At the moment, this system also requires a slightly clunky backpack, which carries a laptop to process all of the information from the belt and the Kinect. With just a little streamlining, though, this could easily be the replacement for the white cane normally used by visually impaired people to navigate their surroundings.


Now that you've got your bearings, click forward to the next page to learn about a hack that could aid disaster rescue efforts.

1: 3-D Mapping Rescue Robot

The final hack to round out our top five has one goal in mind: saving lives in emergency situations. This application of Kinect's capabilities, like two others in our list, was born in a graduate university program. An engineering team at the University of Warwick has coupled the Kinect with a mobile base to create a robot capable of serving as remote eyes for rescue workers.

In high-danger situations like collapsed buildings, where conditions are simply too hazardous for human crews to enter, this mobile robot uses the mapping abilities of the Kinect to hunt for signs of life. While the rescue robot is not able to move survivors, it is capable of mapping the areas it scans in 3-D to enable rescue personnel to concentrate their efforts and minimize risk to all involved. Because this application of the Kinect's motion-detection system is less expensive and more sophisticated than the laser-based alternative, it may soon be tested in real-world situations [source: Lee].


As is immediately apparent, the Kinect's possible applications are as varied as the developers working on them. Hacks that turn the device into an artist's brush, a musical instrument, an autonomous mini helicopter, a sculpting tool and an e-mail command interface have popped up since the Kinect's release, with fresh hacks coming to light every day. It's entirely possible that at some point in the future, the Kinect's association with the Xbox 360 will be eclipsed by its contributions to the robotics and art worlds.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Adafruit Industries. "The Open Kinect project - THE OK PRIZE - get $3,000 bounty for Kinect for Xbox 360 open source drivers." Nov. 4, 2010. (March 28, 2011)
  • Adafruit Industries. "WE HAVE A WINNER - Open Kinect driver(s) released - Winner will use $3k for more hacking - PLUS an additional $2k goes to the EFF!" Nov. 10, 2010. (March 28, 2011)
  • Blair Hanley Frank. "Evil Genius Simulator Puts Electrical Control in Your Hands." PCWorld. March 14, 2011. (March 28, 2011)
  • Cellan-Jones, Rory. "Microsoft welcomes Xbox Kinect 'hackers.'" BBC News. Feb. 21, 2011. (March 28, 2011)
  • Dunn, Ryan. "UW students adapt gaming hardware for robotic surgery." The Daily of the University of Washington. Jan. 18, 2011. (March 28, 2011)
  • Lee, David. "Microsoft Kinect-powered robot to aid earthquake rescue." BBC News. Feb. 24, 2011. (March 28, 2011)
  • Mhatre, Nachiket. "Microsoft Kinect Hacked to Control Killzone on PS3." March 21, 2011 (March 28, 2011)
  • Nosowitz, Dan. "Microsoft Embraces Kinect Hackers, Will Release Official Non-Commercial SDK." Popular Science. Feb. 22, 2011. (March 28, 2011)
  • Science Friday. "Kinect Technology." Nov. 19, 2010. (March 28, 2011)
  • Terdiman, Daniel. "Bounty offered for open-source Kinect driver." Cnet News. Nov. 4, 2010. (March 28, 2011)
  • Zöllner, Michael and Stephen Huber. "NAVI - Navigational Aids for the Visually Impaired - A student project in the course Blended Interaction." Human-Computer Interaction Blog, University of Konstanz. March 15, 2011. (March 28, 2011)>