The narrative around Kinect and how hackers and artists has always been a little oversimplified. You may have heard something like this: thanks to a bounty, creative individuals “hacked” Microsoft’s Kinect camera and made it open.

That’s true, but it isn’t the whole story. While there is a “hacked” Kinect toolset, most of the creative applications you’ve seen make use of a richer set of frameworks from OpenNI. “OpenNI” referred to an alliance of individuals and organizations, and was supposed to represent various interests, as well as what the group called on their Website “an open source SDK used for the development of 3D sensing middleware libraries and applications.”

And now the kinda-sorta-open thing is about to be a huge problem, with the sudden demise of OpenNI and no recourse for anyone using its tools. When you hear long-bearded gentlemen complaining about the vagaries of the term “open source” or “open,” this is the very thing that keeps them up at night.

First, OpenNI was always dominated by a single company, PrimeSense. And rightfully so: PrimeSense developed the core technologies in the first Kinect camera, and had the talent who knew how to use it. But that in turn meant that OpenNI was heavily skewed toward that one vendor.

Second, “open” was used to describe the whole project, when the whole project wasn’t open.

And now the entire project is about to shutter. PrimeSense was bought by Apple, and the direct result of that acquisition (as I and many others predicted) as the demise of OpenNI.

In fact, with Apple splashing just this kind of creative technology all over their Website on the anniversary of the Mac, it’s deeply disappointing that Apple leadership isn’t intervening here. The closing of OpenNI is unceremonious and absent any kind of useful information. Visitors only get this:

“Software downloads will continue to be available until April 23rd, 2014 at which time the OpenNI website will be closed.”

Assuming both OpenNI and its site are dead, the question becomes how to redistribute and license the code. The issue is, there are two components. There’s the OpenNI SDK, which is under an open license and redistributable. But the good bits are part of what’s called “middleware” – additional, proprietary licenses. And that’s where the real magic of what Kinect does lies, the “skeleton tracking, hand point tracking, and gesture recognition.”

All of that is about to go away. And because NiTE is strictly proprietary, even the free (as in beer) downloads formerly used by artists are now off-limits.

This is likely to be an ongoing challenge with clever new depth-sensing camera technologies, because there is a lot of “special sauce” that is remaining proprietary. So far, the knowledge of how to make that work has been restricted enough to the proprietary sector that there aren’t really open source alternatives.

That said, in a bizarre twist of fate, you can actually look to Microsoft (no joke) for actually understanding open source technology and working with the community, as Apple does quite the opposite.

Microsoft’s previously-mentioned open SDK, while Windows-only, has better licensing, and will work with the new Kinect 2 camera. And Microsoft fully owns their technology, and has worked to integrate it recently with creative tools like Cinder (not to be confused with Tinder) and OpenFrameworks.

Developers in the community are already tracking the status of libraries, and which rely on the now-about-to-die NiTE.

We would love to join that effort at CDM. I’m doing additional research and will follow up next week. But in the meantime, please contact us in comments if you’d like to update us on the status of your own library or projects.

And OS X users, you may soon be looking at installing Windows. (Seriously, with Boot Camp, it’s super easy.)

See you next week with more.


Bad news, Apple: With Appleā€™s PrimeSense Acquisition, Shifting Landscape in Depth Sensing, Motion Art

Good news, Microsoft: Microsoft Embraces Open, Creative Coding: New Kinect openFrameworks, Cinder Integration