Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) recently launched its second version of the Kinect, its motion capturing camera peripheral, for Windows PCs. The new device, which is technically identical to the Xbox One version launched last November, features better tracking accuracy than the original Kinect, can track up to six bodies, and uses a fisheye lens which can detect users when they stand closer to the device.
During an interview at Mobihealthnews, Spencer Hutchins, CEO of digital physical therapy start-up Reflexion Health, noted that the new Kinect's tracking accuracy "unlocks a number of clinical use cases in which precision is important." Indeed, the new Kinect has already tickled the fancy of health care companies for nearly a year, after Microsoft allowed certain companies to experiment with the prototypes.
But will the new Kinect really fare better in health care than its predecessor, which demonstrated fascinating potential applications but failed to catch on as a mainstream medical device?
Rich potential applications
In the past, the Kinect has been used in a wide array of physical therapy, surgical support, and telehealth applications.
Startups like Reflexion Health are exploring its use in remote and in-clinic physical therapy. Canadian company GestSure has given surgeons hands-free controls of onscreen patient data. Kaiser Permanente is using a Kinect game to screen young children for autism spectrum disorders.
A company called Sense.ly has developed a virtual nurse -- resembling a combination of Siri and WebMD -- that understands speech and Kinect gestures. Some researchers have demonstrated the potential of multiple Kinects to guide a blind person through a building, translating text from signs to speech in real-time. Microsoft and the Pentagon also believe that the Kinect could be used to provide virtual group therapy through anonymous avatars for alcoholism and PTSD support.
Researchers at MIT have even demonstrated that the new Kinect can even detect a person's heart rate by minor changes in the colors of the skin -- opening the doors to possible remote diagnoses of stress, depression, and other mental and physical ailments.
Assembling the puzzle
While these potential applications are fascinating, selling a few thousand Kinects doesn't help Microsoft very much. What Microsoft needs to do is assemble this scattered puzzle across the health care industry with a unified ecosystem, similar to what Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google are respectively attempting to do with HealthKit and Google Fit.
To accomplish this, Microsoft must bundle HealthVault, its cloud-based PHR (personal health record) system, more closely with the Kinect. Avanade, a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture (NYSE:ACN), has accomplished this in the past, by combining the Kinect, Windows 7 touch technology, chat and voice conferencing technologies, and HealthVault into a cohesive telehealth system.
The second piece of the puzzle is an EHR (electronic health records) provider. Last month, Apple scored a stunning victory by integrating Epic Systems' EHR into HealthKit. Epic, which covers roughly half of all U.S. patients, will make it possible for both patients and doctors to see the same health-related data gathered by iOS compatible fitness apps and devices. By comparison, Microsoft's biggest EHR partnership for HealthVault is with Greenway, a smaller player that merged with rival Vitera last year. That partnership was mainly established to sell more Windows 8 devices, like the Surface, to hospitals.
Meanwhile, Windows Phone, Bing Health & Fitness, and Microsoft's rumored smart watch are all additional puzzle pieces that lack solid connections to HealthVault or the Kinect. Microsoft even removed the new Kinect from the Xbox One last month to reduce the cost of the console by $100, crippling its potential to become a mainstream telehealth device.
The Foolish takeaway
In theory, the Kinect could be used as a telehealth gateway which can be used at home and in the clinic, with accumulated personal health data being sent to the cloud and accessed from any connected device via HealthVault.
Telehealth consultations using the Kinect's sensors could be much more accurate than simple video consultations via mobile devices and PCs. Wearables like fitness bands and smart watches would gather additional information and post it online as well, consistently placing patients and doctors on the same page.
But in practice, the new Kinect will likely remain a niche health care device just like its predecessor. Attracting more start-ups might help showcase its potential, but Microsoft needs to build a more connected ecosystem if it ever wants the Kinect to generate as much hype among doctors as Google Glass.