Voice, gesture recognition ahead, says Microsoft

Microsoft is planning for a future in which gesture and voice recognition replace TV remotes, Xbox game consoles replace some set-top boxes and keyword searches supplant onscreen program guides.

So said James Baldwin — Microsoft’s chief technology officer for television, video and music — in a Tuesday presentation at SMPTE’s annual confab in Hollywood.

Baldwin said the company’s next-generation software for sending TV to mobile phones, laptops and other devices is currently under review by AT&T and other providers, and in theory could be deployed in as little as six months.

Baldwin added that he’s held preliminary discussions with Xbox executives about adapting Microsoft’s Kinect technology to replace remotes in the living room. Kinect, which enables gamers to interact with their Xboxes in a “controller-free” environment, could be adapted to help consumers navigate their TVs.

“It won’t be long before you won’t need the remote control to communicate with your TV,” he said. “You’ll be able to wave your hand around to rewind or fast forward. The computer looks at you as a human being, instead of you having to figure out how to use a device.”

Kinect — which uses cameras, sensors and a microphone to track users — will be released as an Xbox add-on Nov. 4.

Gesture-controlled TV is already coming off the drawing board. Toshiba demonstrated one such set at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

Baldwin predicts that it will be about five years before remotes are completely replaced by gesture and voice sensing devices. Such devices, he said, will also have face recognition technology that will allow them to distinguish between users and their respective preferences.

Microsoft’s Mediaroom platform also gives Xboxes the functionality of set-top boxes, allowing providers to replace STBs with Xbox consoles, if they so choose. Canada’s Telus rolled out that option for some of its customers in August.

Mediaroom 2.0, the latest iteration of the platform now in providers’ hands, allows consumers to order up video-on-demand on virtually any device that connects to the Internet, Baldwin said. He declined to say how far along AT&T and other providers are in their review process but stressed that the technology itself is ready to go.

Even onscreen guides are on their way out, he predicted, to be replaced by “meta tags” or keywords that allow consumers to name a genre, actor, program or channel and instantly get all available programs that match their search. Face recognition technology applied to programming will allow consumers to zoom in on individual scenes.

“The onscreen guide is just about to become a dinosaur,” he said. “It’s a very crude way to present information.”

Baldwin joined Microsoft as part of its 1997 acquisition of WebTV, which sought with limited success to turn TVs into Internet-connection devices. Mediaroom represents a complete rethinking of Microsoft’s original vision for WebTV and interactive television.

Besides Mediaroom, Baldwin oversees technology strategy for Microsoft’s Media Center and Zune music player businesses.

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