Developing motion capture in the Cambridge lab (credit Microsoft Research)

Kinect developers win top UK engineering award

Engineers from Microsoft Research in Cambridge have won an award for their work on human motion-capture in the Xbox Kinect.

Sir Garth Morrison, chairman of the MacRobert Trust, presented the team with their prize - £50,000 for the team members and a solid gold medal for their company - at the Royal Academy of Engineering's Awards Dinner in London on 6 June.

The five team members are: team leader Professor Andrew Blake, software development engineer Mat Cook, principal research scientist Dr Andrew Fitzgibbon, senior research software development engineer Toby Sharp, and research scientist Dr Jamie Shotton.

Microsoft's Kinect lets users control games and entertainment by movements of their hands or body, without using a console. In the two months after its launch in November 2010, Kinect sold 8 million devices, making it the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history.

The Cambridge team first became involved with the project in September 2008 after receiving a request for help from colleagues in the US who were developing controller-free computing.

The Kinect sensor provides a stream of 3D "depth images" that are analysed by software to give a moving interpretation of the human skeleton, at 30 frames per second.

Before Kinect, equipment for motion-capture was commercially available but the moving human subject had to wear reflective markers on all body joints.

Previous attempts at markerless motion capture would fail when movements were fast.

The Microsoft Research Cambridge laboratory applied machine learning techniques to build a capability to analyse depth images independently, classifying pixels in each depth image as belonging to one of 31 body parts.

The classifier is trained and tested using a very large database of pre-classified images, covering varied poses and body types.

It is engineered so efficiently that it uses only a fraction of the total available computing capacity - essential to the practical success of the device.

Microsoft now plans to launch a Kinect software development kit that will broaden its scope to the control of computers and other machines, at a distance, by speech and by gesture.

For example, surgeons might be able to use a hands-free computer in the operating theatre.

John Robinson, chairman of the MacRobert judging panel, said: "Everything about Microsoft Research's Kinect project makes it a worthy winner of this prestigious award.

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.

"Professor Blake and his team have taken Kinect from a first speculative idea to a retail product in just two years and their technical knowledge and achievements are quite outstanding."

Professor Blake replied: "On behalf of the entire team, we are absolutely delighted to receive the MacRobert Award.

We were certainly up against stiff competition and I commend our fellow finalists for their excellent entries."

The other 2011 finalists were: Defence Science & Technology Laboratory and NP Aerospace for a modular ceramic armour system for armoured personnel carriers, Jaguar for the lightweight aluminium XJ body, the first production car to be made using aerospace cold joining technology; and Radio Design for the RF filter that allows telephone companies like Orange and T-mobile to share their networks.

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