Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Microsoft sees a role for Kinect in health care

The software giant imagines a future where its motion-sensing game controller can help patients get care and surgeons leaf through medical records.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
4 min read

SEATTLE--Microsoft thinks its Kinect motion-sensing game controller will find a spot in operating rooms and doctors offices as it already has in consumers' living rooms.

The software giant, which has been working for years to get health care companies to use its technology, is trying to open doors with Kinect. Today at the Pacific Health Summit here, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, showed how medical providers can use the technology to improve care.

In one scenario, patients virtually attend group therapy sessions. But rather than displaying their actual images, Kinect allows them to use avatars, which can capture the movements of the arms, shoulders, even eyebrows, while allowing them to maintain anonymity with the group.

Microsoft's Craig Mundie Jay Greene/CNET

"There's a naturalness to it, even though there's a cartoonish quality about it," Mundie said. "But you get a huge amount of clues."

In his scenario, one patient, listening to another member of the group chat, sat with arms crossed, brow furrowed, and appeared disinterested. That could be a clinical sign of depression worth following.

This isn't just about Kinect, though. Microsoft and other big tech companies such as Google have been courting the health care market for years, prompted in no small part by federal initiatives to drive the digitization of medicine. But those initiatives have so far had, at best, mixed success, in an industry that loves the latest technical marvel in equipment but resists the digitization of patient records. But with so much spent on health care, the lure for tech providers is hard to ignore.

Microsoft has discussed using Kinect with doctors at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, a mental health and substance abuse care provider in the U.K. The idea is to create virtual group sessions for adolescent mental health patients, where kids create an avatar that may or may not resemble them and participate in live video conferences from their own homes. The hope is that the anonymity that Kinect avatars provide will encourage greater participation among adolescents.

"The fact that it's anonymous and not really you has value," Mundie said in an interview after the speech.

During his demonstration, Mundie also showed a way for doctors to use Kinect to interact with patient records. Standing in front of a TV screen rigged with a Kinect, he uttered a patient's name, triggering the record to display. With gestures, Mundie leafed through the patient's medical history, noting that she was a diabetic. The electronic medical record kept tabs on her glucose levels, tracked by a monitor that uploaded data to a Web site. It even showed that the patient recently suffered a sprained ankle, information that may or may not be useful for a doctor's diagnosis.

"We want to change the way people interact with computers," Mundie said.

Kinect could even find a spot in operating rooms, Mundie said in the interview. During surgery, doctors need to remain sterile, but often want to navigate CT scans, medical histories, or other patient records. Instead of asking a nurse to use a mouse to click through documents, Kinect could allow doctors to swipe through them with gestures. And Mundie said that Microsoft has already created a prototype of such a system.

All of the scenarios could be in use within a year, Mundie says. Much of the technology already exists. Microsoft released a software development kit for Kinect for Windows last week, giving computer programmers tools to create new applications for PCs that use the controller. Microsoft is only allowing noncommercial development for now. But Mundie says commercial applications, such as ones Microsoft envisions for health care, won't be far off.

"In practical terms we think it will take some time for people to go from where they are now to perfecting something they'll want to make a product out of," Mundie said. "Probably by the time anybody gets through that development process, we'll be prepared to have commercial terms."

Microsoft has been plugging away for years at changing the way health care providers use technology. In 2007, the company launched HealthVault, a service that lets patients and their care providers view a digital version of their health records in one place. And Microsoft Amalga offers health care systems the ability to centralize the vast pockets of digital information they collect. But even with the government and insurers pushing to digitize health information, hospitals and doctors have been slow to embrace the technology.

Microsoft, though, continues to plug away in the belief that there will be a huge business in using technology to improve outcomes, lower costs, and increase access. Kinect may be a bit of a sideshow in that process. But it may also help break down the industry's resistance to change.