Did you find a Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) Kinect under your Christmas tree this year? If you love to tinker, then it could be much more than a game controller.

Microsoft will likely sell about 5 million Kinects by year-end, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. That tops its nearest competitor, the Sony PlayStation Move, which he says will probably hit only 3 million. Both controllers are supposed to provide a more immersive experience by following the movements of a user's whole body.

But the Kinect has become a darling of hackers and the kind of people who just love to take things apart. And this year they have some ideas that you should try at home, if you think you have the technical skill.

Take Garratt Gallagher. He's an MIT engineer who really liked the movie Minority Report and wanted to build a gesture interface like the one in the film. So he delved into the workings of the Kinect and found the hand and finger motion sensor. Now he can play a virtual piano, complete with music, by simply "playing" the air with his fingers. He said open-source robotics with the Kinect has limitless possibilities. But it also demonstrates that motion tracking that can be much more useful and have applications beyond gaming.Description: http://img.ibtimes.com/www/site/us/images/1px.gif

Willow Garage created the architecture that Gallagher created his code on. The company has created a framework for engineers to hack the Kinect and use its sensor on a mobile robot. With further hacking, the Kinect robot can be used to collect data and stream wirelessly to the host, and it can reconstruct 3-D images of objects and be directed by natural gestures.

Another duo hacked the Kinect to control a medical imaging picture archiving and communication system, or PACS. One of the more interesting uses of the Kinect is in the medical world. A radiologist and a computer scientist from the Virtopsy Group, a division of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern in Switzerland, hacked the Kinect to create an interactive, touch-less interface.

Radiologist Steffen Ross explains in a video that forensic pathologists have historically had issues in trying to interact with PACS datasets. This is because they cannot interact without touching some type of interface, whether it's a keyboard or touchscreen. But touching anything can contaminate the operating room. The only way around that would be to do a full scrub, which is time-consuming.

Virtopsy computer scientist Lars Ebert says the Kinect's 3-D camera allows them to use gestures to interact with the medical images on the PACS system without touching anything. The team also created voice commands, allowing them to change image angles, light settings, and more. Ebert says it's prototype of what could come.

Another Kinect hack, from the University of Washington's BioRobotics Laboratory, has it performing haptics, the art of applying touch sensation with computer applications. With 3-D images, the University of Washington team used a 3-D haptic controller to "touch" the person within view of the Kinect's camera.

Microsoft hasn't come out with an official position on Kinect hacks, though doing them probably voids the warranty. And it isn't clear what would happen if someone tried to commercialize any of it -- odds are much of the technology would have to be licensed from Microsoft, and no tinkerer has yet asked to do so.

But it does show the possibilities for the technology and is reminiscent of the work done on early PCs, when thousands of hobbyists took apart their early 8-bit computers. A plethora of products using licensed Microsoft technology could be a huge second act for the software giant, creating a whole new industry -- just as people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did once before.

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