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Originally published November 7, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified November 8, 2010 at 9:44 AM

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Brier Dudley

Kinect: The true story in black and white

I hate having to write about this sort of thing, but some people are clinging to the debunked story that Microsoft's Kinect doesn't recognize black people.

Seattle Times staff columnist

I hate having to write about this sort of thing, but some people are clinging to the debunked story that Microsoft's Kinect doesn't recognize black people.

Pack journalists and blogs gleefully jumped on the non-story, reporting a racial issue where there wasn't one. It's all about clicks, right?

The story began when GameSpot.com posted an item Wednesday saying one of its "dark-skinned" employees was recognized "inconsistently" by Kinect's facial-recognition system and it was unable to "properly identify the other despite repeated calibration attempts."

"However, Kinect had no problems identifying a third dark-skinned GameSpot employee, recognizing his face after a single calibration. Lighter-skinned employees were also consistently picked up on the first try," the site reported.

Remember, Kinect is basically a really fancy camera that shoots and analyzes images of players. This gets to two obvious facts spun and woven into a huge, raggedy shroud obscuring what's really happening.

Fact one: When you take pictures of people, you get different results depending on lighting conditions and skin tones.

Fact two: Kinect is sensitive to lighting conditions and not absolutely precise.

Fortunately, Kinect primarily relies on skeletal tracking to play games and for most of its controls. Skin color doesn't matter — as long as you have a skeleton that moves, you'll be able to play the games.

After the GameSpot story appeared, it was quickly debunked by Consumer Reports, which tested the system with black and white players.

Essentially, the magazine reported, the Kinect recognized both players at light levels used in living rooms at night and failed to recognize either when the lights were turned down. "So far, we did not experience any instance where one player was recognized and the other wasn't under the same lighting conditions," it said. "This problem didn't prevent anyone who was affected from playing Kinect games, since it can 'see' and track players' bodies and motions using a built-in infrared lighting system."

Consumer Reports isn't the only media outlet that didn't see a racial issue with Kinect.

The New York Times' Seth Schiesel gave Kinect a glowing review, even though it sometimes took a few tries to activate a control.

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"Does the system recognize every voice command exactly the first time? Of course not. But it works consistently enough that I never wanted to reach for those relics of the past: a plastic controller or remote control," wrote Schiesel, who is black.

Microsoft later weighed in with a response: "Kinect works with people of all skin tones," it said. "And just like a camera, optimal lighting is best. Anyone experiencing issues with facial recognition should adjust their lighting settings, as instructed in the Kinect Tuner."

The situation highlights the early state of Kinect's facial-recognition technology. It works well enough to play games and give you a taste of the future. But it's going to be a while before it's ready for cash registers and airport-security systems.

After the outcry caused by its story, GameSpot did more testing in different rooms and with the players wearing different clothes.

Guess what happened? Kinect correctly identified the same "dark-skinned" players on the first try. But it hiccuped when one changed to a black shirt from a blue shirt. A fourth with dark skin brought in for testing wasn't recognized.

Bottom line, there is no consistent effect attributable to race.

Kinect isn't insensitive. The problem is that it's overly sensitive and a little touchy. How Seattle can it get?

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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