I had thought that Kinect hacks would be the source of Microsoft Kinect‘s true science fiction credentials but it turns out those crazy folk at Redmond got there first. For all the tech journalist wittering (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) about Minority Report, the technology Kinect is most likely to make real from the sci-fi canon is Star Trek’s Holodeck. At the end of 2010, I predicted that Kinect would deliver the Holodeck and thanks to CES, the first version has arrived already. It’s called Avatar Kinect

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Steve Ballmer demoed Avatar Kinect during the Microsoft keynote using the Ballmer Avatar (which looks decidedly slimmer and less sweaty than the real thing). It was an impressive demo which you can see below. Kinect Avatar puts the Kinect’s microphones and cameras to seriously good use tracking your facial expressions from mouth movements to slight changes like eyebrow raises and blinks.

When William Gibson and Neal Stephenson were writing about “cyberspace” in the late-80s and early-90s, the idea of the avatar as a virtual representation of yourself was a crazy vision of the future. Now we have the computing power in an ordinary Xbox 360 with the Kinect attached to render a representation of ourselves online that responds in real time. Second Life was impressive for about a day, Avatar Kinect is the start of something truly impressive.

Look how William Gibson described the representation of an avatar in his 1986 novel Count Zero:

A square of cyberspace directly in front of him flipped sickeningly and he found himself in a pale blue graphic that seemed to represent a very spacious apartment, low shapes of furniture sketched in hair-fine lines of blue neon. A woman stood in front of him, a sort of glowing cartoon squiggle of a woman, the face a brown smudge. “I’m Slide,” the figure said, hands on its hips…[She] gestured, a window suddenly snapping into existence behind her.

“Right,” Bobby said. “What is this? I mean, if you could sort of explain.” He still couldn’t move. The “window” showed a blue-gray video view of palm trees and old buildings.

…”Hey, man, I paid a designer an arm and a leg to punch this up for me. This is my space, my construct. This is L.A., boy. People here don’t do anything without jacking. This is where I entertain!”

Neal Stephenson really pushed the idea of the online “avatar” in his seminal 1992 novel Snow Crash. The Sanskrit term “avatar” had been used in the 1986 video game Habitat but Stephenson was not aware of that when he applied it to the virtual bodies used by his characters in the metaverse within Snow Crash.

Lots of the ideas developed by Stephenson in Snow Crash have come to pass – the Earth software used by the CIA in Snow Crash is pretty similar to Google Earth – and now it looks like Avatar Kinect is making the “avatar” of his novel a reality. It can’t be too long before a secondary market in clothes for your new avatar develops just as it has for standard Xbox Live avatars. Interestingly, former Microsoft XBox head honcho J Allard used the name “Hiro Protagonist” (the main character in Snow Crash) as his Xbox Live gamertag.

Avatar Kinect is cool and a fairly amazing bit of tech but it is just the beta version of the Holodeck and we’ll see big leaps over the course of 2011. Imagine combining the Kinect smarts with the Sony Personal Display VR glasses which have also been shown at CES this year. It’s also inevitable that gloves to deliver haptic feedback from games and even full body suits will begin to arrive. Combine Kinect with glasses and haptic feedback along with Avatar Kinect’s ability to allow you to meet virtually with other Avatars and the Holodeck is here.

Avatar Kinect will allow you to record your movements and meeting to video and share it online. Expect to see Avatar Kinect TV shows of all kinds appearing as soon as the service goes live in Spring. There’ll even be backgrounds, which Microsoft calls “sets” available to make creating Avatar Kinect shows even easier.

I also predict that the first Daily Mail scare story about Avatar Kinect perverts or Avatar Kinect criminals will come out within 6 to 8 weeks of its debut. And don’t be surprised if the same companies who colonised Second Life so eagerly begin to create Avatar Kinect environments for their brands and pay actors to personify their mascots. Out of work actors will be turned into bargain basement Andy Serkis-types.

Hit the comments and share your predictions with us. Where do you think Avatar Kinect will go?

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