How Kinect could turn smartphones into robots

Microsoft’s (s msft) Robotics Developer Studio, a software platform for programming robots, gains support for the company’s popular Xbox Kinect accessory Wednesday through a free download. Adding Kinect service support allows developers to create and program robots that use Kinect to see and hear.

The Kinect game accessory, which enables video game interaction through full-body gestures, has found a number of uses in the hacking community and Microsoft’s addition of Kinect services to robotics extends the popular product even farther. But Kinect’s future could be in even more intelligent smartphones.

According to EETimes, Microsoft’s 2010 purchase of gesture-recognition company Canesta, and its chip-level pattern recognition, may provide a return in the form of a smaller Kinect-type product that fits into a handset:

Canesta’s engine is said to outperform the PrimeSensor which Microsoft is currently licensing from PrimeSense Ltd. (Tel-Aviv, Israel) for its Kinect. When Microsoft commercializes the Canesta-invented chip-level work-alike of the PrimeSensor, it will be able to downsize the foot-long Kinect to about a square centimeter, enabling tiny robots and other mobile devices, such as the Windows Phone, to perform sophisticated gesture recognition for natural user interfaces, autonomous navigation and many other tasks.

This type of technology is exactly what I alluded to last year when I noted that today’s smartphones could power tomorrow’s robots in a GigaOM Pro report (subscription required). The computing power of smartphones has increased dramatically with each new generation of mobile processors, and based on the quad-core chips coming later this year, that pattern looks to continue. At the same time, sensors that can see and hear — think of smartphone cameras and advanced multi-array microphones that eliminate background noise — have also improved.

Connectivity to the cloud, a smartphone must-have, expands the “brains” of a robot by allowing for nearly limitless information. Sure, you can store a fair amount of data on a smartphone with 32 GB of storage capacity, but access to the vast information bases of Wikipedia, Google (s goog) and other sites brings even more smarts to a smartphone-powered robot. What’s missing then is what Kinect hardware and software can bring: strong gesture and object recognition.

Ironically, Microsoft isn’t the first to integrate its own Kinect product with robotics, even though it has had a robotics software platform since 2006. Robot enthusiasts have already done so on their own by accessing the raw data stream from the Kinect’s USB connection. Willow Garage also offers the Turtlebot kit (shown above), complete with Kinect and a Windows-powered netbook.

And in May of this year, Google (s goog) introduced Android support for robotics, even demonstrating the use of Kinect to see the audience during the presentation. Regardless of who embraced the Kinect technology when, if Microsoft can shrink the system down for use in handsets, you may carry your smartphone during the day, but dock it in a mobile robot for use at home during the night.