Adafruit Bears Fruit for Microsoft

Several days ago, open-source hardware company Adafruit offered a "bounty" of $3000 for the first person to hack Microsoft's Kinect (formerly Project Natal) device. For those of you who don't know, Kinect was originally just an add-on hardware accessory for the Microsoft XBOX 360 allowing for motion sensing of one's full body (as opposed to using an external device, like the Wiimote in Nintendo's Wii). However, companies like Adafruit saw the additional value in a product like this, and Adafruit offered a cash prize for whoever could first release an open-source driver (not necessary for Linux per se) for the Kinect. (Someone did win and receive the cash prize already.) Since then, dozens of new and interesting uses for the Kinect have come up, including being able to manipulate pictures and videos using just your arms (sci-fi style) and being able to make a movie of you using a lightsaber in real time by having the Kinect track the motion of you swinging around a long stick. The possibilities are virtually endless.
More interesting, however, is Microsoft's response to all this. First, they angrily condemned this cash prize offer saying they don't condone such modifications; furthermore, they seemed to vaguely threaten legal action against Adafruit and/or the skilled hacker. Later, once the prize had been claimed, however, Microsoft backed down from the legal threats, probably because even they knew they wouldn't stand a chance in court. Now, after all this, a Microsoft engineer has admitted that the Kinect was designed to be easy to hack for exactly these sorts of purposes.
So my question is, why wasn't Microsoft open and up-front about this from the start? Unlike Bart Simpson and Nelson Muntz, they don't have a "bad-boy" reputation to protect. If they had been open about this from the start, people who were cowered into submission and inaction by Microsoft's threats would have otherwise tried their hands at the Kinect, leading to more competition and possibly even higher-quality drivers (and even more possibilities). It looks like Microsoft is admitting that it needs to look like a bully even if it really isn't at times; why?


  1. Because Microsoft stir hackers' defiance whenever they say they have protected their products. For Microsoft, it was just saying "I challenge you to hack my ultra-securized device", and some hackers successfully took in the challenge.
    the Microsoft PR guys are just brilliant, they just took advantage of the company's reputation and the situation actually did beget creativity, the sort of creativity that will eventually benefit the Redmond-based behemoth.

  2. Why do you think the developer at Microsoft who claimed that it would be easy to hack really telling the truth?
    I think it is just a post-construction when they realized that it was impossible to stop.
    And then everything is back to normal again, MS is and will remain evil :-)

  3. The data format was not "ultrasecurized" at all. They didn't know what was going on they just heard "kinect hacking" and gave a generic response which applied to a physical type hacking, with soldering and all. This was not a physical hack but a reverse engineering of the data format. The output uses standard usb classes and the data was not obfuscated at all (I'm assuming). Therefore I believe that microsoft really isn't too upset about this and probably expected this would happen and indeed left it "open". It would have been very easy to obfuscate the data format through encryption or something. Since someone had a driver library within hours i'm sure it wasn't. The "secret sauce" is implemented in the xbox itself. All the kinnect gives you is a camera and depth sensing (and a microphone?). This in itself has opened up a lot of creativity, but will take a bit to come up with advanced algorithms that are proprietary, locked up in the xbox games' code.

  4. @Anonymous 1: Yeah, but you could look at it the other way as well; Microsoft may really have been serious about the threats, while hackers just took it as a challenge.
    @Anonymous 2: That may be true, but the same thing happened regarding the hackability of Windows Mobile (though I am fully aware that the same reasoning could be applied there as well).
    @Anonymous 3: True, but I would hope that Microsoft is smart enough to at least know that most hacking of its products refers to software hacking, not hardware modding.
    Thank you all for your comments!

  5. "It looks like Microsoft is admitting that it needs to look like a bully even if it really isn't at times; why?"

    1. Microsoft sells severely restricted use licenses (EULAs, etc.) for products they do not want anyone but them to control or own.

    2. Microsoft corporate was convicted of anti competitive business practices.

    3. Microsoft spends oceans of corporate treasure and time patching security deficiencies on released versions of their products.

    If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, why is anyone surprised by now at all the duck crap on the rug?

  6. @Anonymous: I'm not really sure I get that. My point is, given all that crappy history, wouldn't it be better in the long run (though certainly not easy) to just come clean/start anew? Thanks for the comment!

  7. Never attribute to malice (or cleverness) that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

  8. @Anonymous: I suppose so, but given that Microsoft has in fact acted in this way due to malice in the past, I don't think it's a terrible assumption this time. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Or how about that Microsoft realized that the real encryption system in the kinect was not touched at all. (a) They don't want a driver that would facilitate the kinect being observed as it's used from the XBox. (b) They don't want the full capabilities of the kinect usable from nonMS hardware.

    One possibility: the kinect would store pictures from a point in time when it supposedly was dis-kinect'd and then shuffle those frames encrypted upon getting the right command, or it might even communicate that it has such information available.

    Another: the kinect might do a serious amount of processing on the pictures and maybe even store very high resolution of some parts of its view. It might even keep old information around internally in order to optimize its future communication and processing. Such trade secrets would help keep privacy questions out of the picture and/or provide significant advantages to the XBox as a hub for the kinect (since others could not leverage the features).. which itself gives Microsoft significant leverage and makes their XBox platform appear superior than it actually is. ..Also, indirection (having competitors guessing in the wrong place) is probably also one of their goals.

    Ignoring the suggestions above on possible nefarious motivations, it makes lots of business sense for them to have special features in the kinenct not be accessible by others.

  10. @Jose_X: I wouldn't disagree that it makes business sense for them to have special features not accessible by others, but once some of those features become available in the wild, what do they seriously think they can do? Anyway, thanks for the comment!