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Make Sure You’re Kinect-ed: Talking With Microsoft’s Alex Kipman

Make Sure You’re Kinect-ed: Talking With Microsoft’s Alex Kipman (photo)

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First we knew it as Xbox’s response to the Wii, with mysterious rumors pegging it as everything from a wand-like input device to a revolutionary motion-sensing camera. Then, the latter of those two prospects got introduced as Project Natal, the head-scratching codename for Microsoft’s controller-free initiative. A media circus (literally) during this year’s E3 revealed the actual product name this summer. Since then, silence and anticipation built steadily until Kinect’s debut in stores today.

Microsoft claims that Kinect will change everything. Much of that line of thought comes from Alex Kipman, the company’s Director of Incubation and the gentleman parting the waters into the promised land of super-immersion. Kipman’s been barnstorming for the last few weeks preaching the Kinect gospel and spoke to IFC News about the philosophy and practical considerations behind Microsoft’s next big bet.

I know a lot of research has gone into Kinect and it’s finally out of development. Now that you guys can send the product off to launch, can you talk about how long the journey’s been to get here? Has it been a two year cycle? Longer than that?

One could say it was a million years in the making. This was about making you into the controller, right?

Well, sure.

I would say that what you see here is a combination of us understanding a moment in time. Of us understanding that computers, as a whole, are transitioning from this world where all of us of had to understand technology, into this world where technology fundamentally understands us.

But I see Kinect as the peak of that journey, of that transitioning moment, of the catalyst that brings us from this old world, to this new world that will be.

From that perspective, why hadn’t we had this before today? And the answer is because we haven’t been able to get the algorithms to a level of sophistication around the various elements–computer vision, machine learning or voice recognition–to a point where we could transition science fiction into science fact.

So, to give you the idea of time, which is what you’re asking, I need to mention that we have a huge branch of research at Microsoft. And if I were to add the many years of people with domain expertise in these fields, it’s decades’ worth of work.

Right. So you were already doing biometrics research and stuff like that?

11042010_alex_kipman.jpgAny number of things like that. Generally, we pick the key experts in the world in all of these fields and fuse them together to really make sure we can get a very strong platform that really lives up to, “Hey, simply step in front of the sensor, and it recognizes you.” It knows the difference between you and I, you and your family, you and your friends. Start moving, and the sensor understands fundamentally your human movement. Knows when you kick a soccer ball, or gesture to move between UI [user interface] screens. Then, it can tell when you move around to do tai chi poses as in “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.”

And, finally, when you use your voice, you’ll have voice recognition work in a natural way. So, if you’re watching entertainment, you can simply say “Xbox, pause,” or “Xbox, why don’t you suggest me a movie for me?” Voice commands and things along those lines.

Those three pillars create the palette, the paint colors and the paint brushes that allow us to create these unique experiences that land us in this new world, where technology disappears and Kinect fundamentally understands you. Now that’s half of the story.

The other half of the story is how the combination of research and technology–paint colors and paint brushes, if you will–lets players be painters and paint pictures. We think the seventeen experiences that we bring to market at launch will let you do that. All the launch games were really created from the beginning to get you up on your feet, get everybody collaborating, cheering each other on, playing together, having fun and laughing together.

So what’s the nature of the challenges in the various Kinect games?

These experiences were designed to be simple, fun, and approachable for everyone. Now, that doesn’t mean that they are simple in every way. They’re simple to start, but they’re still skill-based. They take forever to get good at. It’s like golf. You and I can go to the golf course today. I know the rules. I can swing my arms and I can hit a ball. I never played before. To beat Tiger Woods, I’m going to have to spend a little bit more time to get to that level. Same thing here.

All of our experiences can be described as simple but approachable. Super-easy to get into and go. But it takes work and skill before you can get really, really good at it.

Can you talk a little bit about integrating the research? Like you said, you’ve got three pillars here that are all combining to create essentially a seamless experience. Can you talk about the different directions that you guys could have gone, for things like voice recognition or the body scanning?

Yes and no. The reason nobody has been able to crack this problem before is because everybody goes down a route, after trying to figure out a pre-set path. That’s the very engineering way as opposed to the artistic way of approaching the problem. I always say to people, “I’m the Kirk in a world of Spocks.” The world of Spocks requires you to choose something. It’s zeros and ones. It’s true and false. It’s black and white. It’s yes and no.

The answer to your question, which is the Kirk answer, is the more emotional and artistic answer…

[overlapping] You got some of the William Shatner body language going on, too.

[laughs] The point I’m trying to make is that the human body and human expression represent a system that’s analog. It’s not yes and no. It’s maybe. It’s not black and white. It’s gray. You’re moving to a world that’s not “what you know” but to a world of probabilities where all of these probabilities exist all the time. Your brain’s job is to create a language that allows you to know what to choose out of all these probabilities and when to choose it.

That was a whole bunch of philosophical blah-blah-blah. Let me give you some concrete examples. Take identity recognition. I can reduce that entire space to a signal-to-noise problem. Why haven’t I had identity recognition that works in the past? It’s because people choose a way of doing it; either a face, a voice or a fingerprint gets added . It turns out that if you and I get in front of a camera sensor right now, we’re very different people. Kinect is going to use that facial recognition data to lock us in.

Now that facial recognition is signal, everything else is noise. Still, it turns out that in the living room, Darwin is against us. You are genetically similar to your family. At that point, facial recognition sucks. So, then, facial recognition just became noise, I need something else to be signal.

So it’s really about trying to create hardware and software that look at the world in terms of “ands” instead of “ors.” It’s not about choosing a path. It’s about realizing that no one path will get you to the Promised Land, and you need to create a language that tells you that everything’s probable. You need to have some language around confidence. You need to know when you know something. You need to know when you don’t know something.

All of that sound ridiculously difficult to program a computer to do…

It gets better, because there’s a second derivative to it, which is that you need to be confident about your confidence. Because if my [computer vision] system says “Hey, I’m really 100% sure that this is a head,” and it’s really a foot, well, it’s not really confident about it confidence. So, the entirety of Kinect is designed to be this probabilistic, statistical-based system that really looks at everything–identity, motion, and voice–in terms of a signal-to-noise world. And it knows when to focus on the signal, when to throwaway the noise, much like your brain works.

Our minds are essentially massive signal-to-noise machines that are way more complicated, complex and sophisticated than Kinect. Like, right now, your attention is focused on me and my voice, relegating all the voice in the other rooms to the background. Al of our efforts for what we want to do on the console have been to basically replicate a similar means of judging and filtering multiple streams of data, to figure out the most probable conclusion for which user you are, what you might be saying and how you might be moving.

So that goes back to what I said about no single path for decision-making. It’s about all possible paths. And it’s about being confident about your confidence so we can believe in the choice. Traditionally, it’s super-simple to create an artificial intelligence system that knows something. Now, to have the artificial intelligence system know when it’s stupid and when it doesn’t know something, that’s the hard problem. And Kinect does that with something that’s uniquely ours, something that we invented, which is this language to be able to describe these very analog concepts in a robust way.

One last question. This conceptual framework, this architecture for the algorithms that you’re talking about, is this something that we can expect to see rolled out on Xbox in different ways, or even onto the PC platform? Because it sounds flexible enough to kind of reinvent user interfaces altogether.

I meant what I said. The entire computer world is changing. And when we look at Kinect, it’s the beginning of the journey. It’s not an end of a journey. And we begin the journey very focused in the living room, and in gaming and entertainment as a whole, but it would be silly of us to not be looking at this in a broader sense.

We don’t have time or wish to think about that broader space right now. We need to have an amazing consumer launch on November 4th and have an amazing device for everyone in the living room, but, as you say, we believe fundamentally in ushering this new era of computers, and we see Kinect as the pinnacle of that transition right now.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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