Yes, Your Xbox Can Spy on You

Matthew Gault

Kinect has lots of military and intel uses

The Microsoft Kinect is a powerful technology many gamers fear will be used to spy on them while they play Call of Duty.

This betrays a lack of imagination. Kinect can indeed spy, but it also does so much more—and the military wants that technology to create everything from roboroaches to Kinect-operated drones.

Yes, Your Xbox Can Spy on You

Kinect is an inexpensive webcam-style device designed to add motion and voice control to video games running on Microsoft’s Xbox and Xbox One. Critics and fans have criticized the tech for being creepy and invasive, and Microsoft has gone to great lengths to assuage those fears.

Earlier this year, Microsoft fought off another round of conspiratorial speculation when reporters working for The Guardian uncovered Optic Nerve, a British GCHQ spy program that captured webcam images in bulk from users.

The project’s documentation claimed the spies involved were looking toward Kinect as another possible method of bulk capturing people’s data. Microsoft denied knowledge of the project and promised to update their encryption methods to protect users.

People are still spooked, but they’re spooked for the wrong reasons. A piece of duct tape over a camera lens can take care of the problem of being snooped on by spies.

Governments and militaries are using Kinect, but the projects involved are much more interesting than simple data collection.

Microsoft Kinect. Creative Tools/Flickr photo

Holodecks and roboroaches

Kinect is cheap, usually priced around $200 to $250. A price point that low makes it one of the most cost-effective pieces of motion capture and recording equipment on the market.

Microsoft put a lot of time, effort and money into getting the military to think about Kinect as a viable solution to a lot of problems.

Since then, different companies have created a lot of different systems. Everything from a better way to signal airplane pilots during takeoff to using Kinect-based heads-up displays in helicopters.

In January, the Army put out the word that it was looking for new technologies to help train soldiers. Northrop Grumman believes it has the answer in its Virtual Immersive Portable Environment system. Basically, it’s a holodeck.

How does it work? Soldiers stand in a ring surrounded by Kinect sensors placed in front of flat walls covered in projected images. In action, it looks like the user is dropped into the middle of a video game.

You can see a live demonstration of this training in the video below.


The Army and the Navy have also asked a group of students at MIT to come up with a solution for computer mapping and navigation in GPS-denied areas. These are places GPS satellites can’t reach, and where relying too much on the technology can become a hazard for soldiers accustomed to depend on it for navigation.

To solve the problem, the students mounted a Kinect onto a drone and sent it flying around a room. The drone was able to map its surroundings and navigate effectively.

Tiny drones aren’t the only objects wired up and controlled by Kinects.

Researchers at North Carolina State University are doing the same thing with cockroaches. The researchers placed small sensors on cockroaches and gave them a predetermined path to follow. A Kinect follows their progress and gives the bugs a little jolt when they get out of line.

The whole system is surprisingly effective at herding roaches. But why?

Reconnaissance. Robots are expensive, but roaches are cheap and easy to power. If troops need to peek into a building, all they need do is unleash the swarm and direct it towards a target. No one pays much attention to a roach hiding in the dark.

About a year ago, a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy repurposed a Kinect as a robotic object-detection system. “You can put this system on a robot and just like that, you have a really inexpensive, fully-functional and mobile computer vision system, instead of having to spend a lot on fancy laser cameras,” Midshipmen 1st Class James VanKirk said.

A few months later, South Korea took the idea of using Kinect for object detection and implemented it. Kinect now patrols the DMZ between North and South Korea. Until recently, South Korea used an expensive heat-based technology that had trouble distinguishing between humans and animals.

Xbox 360 Kinect. Eric Chan/Flickr photo

The bright side

It’s not all surveillance bugs and tiny drones. The military is also doing some positive experiments with Kinect.

For one, the military is trying to end an epidemic of sexual assault.

Different branches are trying different methods to combat the problem. The Navy — continuing its tradition of throwing video game at problems — is looking at Kinect as a possible tool.

Last year, the the Navy contracted firm Organic Motion to “develop and implement an avatar-based pilot training program that provides Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. … The purpose of the pilot is to determine the effectiveness of employing avatars to enhance delivery of SAPR training and comprehension.”

Organic Motion uses Kinect to map the facial expressions, body movements and voice of an actor onto an avatar.

That avatar can then be projected anywhere. This would allow a trained therapist to take on many different roles in the course of Sexual Assault Prevention Training, all while remaining anonymous.

That’s not all. In the months after the release of the PC version of Kinect, Microsoft devoted time and resources pitching a number of projects to the military.

One such project saw Microsoft working with the Navy and IT company Infostrat to develop a program to walk wounded vets through their physical therapy exercises from the home.

Physical therapy is very expensive. Kinects are not.

Microsoft also toyed with the idea of using Kinect to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers could use the device to attend group meetings as avatars rather than themselves. This anonymity could help many soldiers open up about their combat experiences in a group setting without fear of judgement or repercussions.

Technology is neither good nor bad. The applications people invent for devices like Kinect reflect the needs of the society and the minds of the creators. Kinect is cheap and effective, and anyone can go and pull one off the shelf and start to experiment.

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