Microsoft Gives Green Light To Kinect 'Hackers'

Microsoft's Webcam-style add-on Kinect is easily hackable, but don't expect to hear the software giant sharpening its legal swords to stop intrusions any time soon.

Microsoft's Kinect, the Xbox 360's motion sensor peripheral, enables users to control and interact with games by using body motions as opposed to a manual controller. The peripheral was recently discovered to be vulnerable to hackers, who have, among other things, manipulated the device to create Star Wars–style light sabers, shadow puppets and robots.

But if anything, Microsoft is giving hackers the green light to flex their creative muscle and repurpose the Kinect device for their own pet IT projects.

Alex Kipman, Microsoft director of incubation for Xbox, told NPR's Talk of the Nation that the company intentionally wrote an open-source PC driver that opens up the USB connection, "which we didn't protect by design, and read as the inputs from the sensor," he said.

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That unprotected USB connection leaves a wide open door for the peripheral to be made compatible with a PC. Users could subsequently use the acquired data to create their own application projects, Kipman said.

"The sensor again, as I talked earlier, has eyes and ears and that's a whole bunch of, you know, noise that someone needs to take and turn into signal," he said.

Kipman said that this kind of manipulation didn’t constitute hacking, which would imply that someone obtained unauthorized access to Microsoft algorithms and used them for malicious purposes, or to break into the device to conduct cheating and extortion activities.

As such, Kipman emphasized that Microsoft had no intentions of going after users who used the Kinect for their personal IT projects, adding that the company was encouraging partnerships with universities that used the Kinect device in research projects.

The come-one-come-all stance represents an about-face for Microsoft, after the software giant alluded to taking future legal action against users who tampered with Kinect when it was first unveiled Nov. 4. Microsoft issued the vague threats following a contest sponsored by Adafruit Industries, which offered a $3,000 prize to the first person who could create open-source drivers enabling the Kinect to work with a PC.

"Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products. With Kinect, Microsoft built-in numerous hardware and software safeguards designed to reduce the chances of product tampering. Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant," Microsoft said.

Next: Microsoft Applauds Kinect Hackers' Creativity

Microsoft has since changed its tune, publicly lauding the opportunity for the Kinect to be used as a multipurpose device.

"I'm very excited to see that people are so inspired that it was less than a week after the Kinect came out before they had started creating and thinking about what they could do," said Microsoft Game Studios Manager Shannon Loftis, to NPR.

Thus far, the Kinect, which sells for about $150, appears to be a big win for Microsoft, selling more than one million units as of last week, according to Microsoft.