Kinect developer claims credit for hack bounty idea

Johnny Lee, formerly a "core" member of the Kinect development team, says he was the one who came up with the idea for a bounty for the first person to successfully hack Microsoft's Kinect motion controller.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
On Monday, Microsoft announced the Windows SDK for Kinect, and just hours later, a former core member of the Kinect team said he had been behind the idea for a bounty to hack the hit motion controller. Microsoft

Just after Microsoft announced a Windows software development kit for its hit Kinect motion controller today, a former "core" member of the device's development team said the idea for a bounty contest to hack the Kinect was his.

In a post on his personal blog, former Kinect team "core contributor" Johnny Lee said that he was happy to see news of the new SDK from Microsoft and that it was something he'd been promoting internally before he left in January to join Google as a "rapid evaluator." In the post, Lee also revealed a "secret" about the bounty offered by the open-source hardware firm Adafruit Industries, and its principals, Phil Torrone and Limor Fried.

I actually have a secret to share on this topic. Back in the late Summer of 2010, trying to argue for the most basic level of PC support for Kinect from within Microsoft, to my immense disappointment, turned out to be really grinding against the corporate grain at the time (for many reasons I won't enumerate here). When my frustration peaked, I decided to approach AdaFruit to put on the Open Kinect contest. For obvious reasons, I couldn't run the contest myself. Besides, Phil and Limor did a phenomenal job, much better than I could have done. Without a doubt, the contest had a significant impact in raising awareness about the potential for the Kinect outside of Xbox gaming both inside and outside the company. Best $3000 I ever spent.

In its own blog post, Adafruit wrote today that "Johnny approached us (while at Microsoft, he's now at Google) and we said we'd help out--so, we reverse engineered the Kinect on our own, started the contest, posted the USB logs to GitHub--and then Hector won. Since we didn't need to put up all the cash ourselves, a chunk went to the EFF. It was a little spy vs. spy for us to keep Johnny safe, and that also made it (more) fun."

Neither Microsoft nor Lee immediately responded to a request for comment.

For those who have watched the Kinect hacking community blossom almost overnight in the wake of the offering of the bounty last November, Lee's admission is surely worth a big smile. That someone internal and central to the Kinect team was the one behind the push to the hacking world to break the new device is certainly a delicious development. Clearly, Lee wanted Microsoft to open up the device from the get-go, and when corporate politics made that impossible, it seems he went underground and took matters into his own hands.

Almost immediately after Kinect hacking became a reality--just days after the offer of the bounty, an event that itself happened the same day as the device was released--talk started that Microsoft would eventually release an SDK. Despite word from Microsoft at the time that it would "work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant," it wasn't long before two members of the Kinect team went on National Public Radio and told listeners that on the one hand, the Kinect interface had been left unprotected "by design" and that on the other, they were "inspired" by the community finding new uses for Kinect.

It's hard to say, of course, if Microsoft would have moved so quickly to put out an SDK if hackers hadn't more or less forced the issue. But now that nearly anyone using Windows will be able to develop their own uses for the motion controller, it would be logical to conclude that, with Microsoft's blessing, the sky may well be the limit for what programmers can do with the device.

One can assume, however, that Microsoft will find ways to restrict how Kinect can be used in conjunction with adult-oriented games and software. And if that's the case, then it is also probably safe to assume that the hacking community will just have to work on that itself.