A team of five engineers from Microsoft Research Cambridge has won the £50,000 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, presented at London’s Guildhall earlier tonight (Monday June 6) for its work on Kinect for Xbox 360.
Academy President Lord Browne of Madingley made the cash and gold medal award to MD and team leader Professor Andrew Blake; software development engineer Mat Cook; principal research scientist Dr Andrew Fitzgibbon; senior research software development engineer Toby Sharp; and research scientist Dr Jamie Shotton.
The engineers received the honour for their work on Kinect for Xbox 360, allowing controller-free gaming and opening up a whole new future for human interaction with computers.
In the two months after its launch last November, Kinect sold eight million devices, making it the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history.
The team first became involved with the project in September 2008 after receiving a request for help from a Microsoft team in the US who were trying to develop controller-free computing.
Before Kinect, equipment for motion-capture was commercially available but required instrumentation of the moving human subject, in the form of markers placed on all body joints. Previous attempts at markerless motion capture would fail under rapid body motion, meaning an effective system was not available.
The Microsoft Research laboratory applied machine learning techniques to build a capability to analyse depth images independently. It classified pixels in each depth image as belonging to one of 31 body parts, drawing on previous work from the Cambridge laboratory on the recognition of objects in photographs.
The classifier was trained and tested using a very large database of pre-classified images, covering varied poses and body types. It was engineered so efficiently that it uses only a fraction of the total available computing capacity – essential to the practical success of Kinect.
While gamers across the globe have benefitted greatly from the team’s innovation, the future uses of ‘Kinect’ style technology seem endless. Beyond gaming, Microsoft has announced the planned launch of Kinect for Microsoft Windows, first for academics and hobbyists and later on a commercial basis.
This will broaden its scope to the control of computers and other machines, at a distance, by speech and by gesture, making technologies more readily accessible to the people who use them. Surgeons will be among the first users to benefit – Kinect will enable them to use a hands-free computer in the operating theatre, as Business Weekly reported two months ago.
John Robinson, chairman of the MacRobert judging panel, said: “Everything about Microsoft Research’s Kinect project makes it a worthy winner of this prestigious award. Yet again, British engineers have solved a seemingly intractable problem that stumped the rest of the world – motion capture in real time has made Kinect hugely successful and what was originally developed as a game is now poised to revolutionise the way we use computers in the future.
“Professor Blake and his team have taken Kinect from a first speculative idea to a retail product in just two years and their technical knowledge and achievements are quite outstanding. This is world-beating engineering by a world-leading team based in the UK.
“Everybody thinks Microsoft is American - but this superb engineering was done by British engineers at their lab in Cambridge. As a British engineer, I feel proud of them.”
Professor Blake added: “On behalf of the entire team, we are absolutely delighted to receive the MacRobert Award. We were certainly up against stiff competition and I commend our fellow finalists for their excellent entries.
“For our work on machine learning for Kinect, and indeed the field of computer science, to be recognised by the top engineering award in the UK, makes us very proud.
“I would like to thank the team involved at Microsoft Research, our colleagues in the Xbox team at Microsoft, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, for making it possible for us to receive this prestigious honour.”
• Photograph shows: Professor Andrew Blake, managing director, Microsoft Research Cambridge, with John Robinson, chairman of the MacRobert judging panel.