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.

Previously:

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

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

  • Angry Mac User

    1) Throw out your stupid macbook pro and all related hardware
    2) print a picture of the PrimeSense crew and spit on it repeatedly (23 times is a good start)
    3) install PCL (http://pointclouds.org) and witness the amazeness of real OpenSource http://pointclouds.org/documentation/tutorials

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Okay, I can’t get behind you 100% here.

      PCL will run on OS X. It’s in MacPorts. And the Mac hardware will run Windows and Linux. You realize you’re yelling at someone’s laptop, right?

      I can’t really fault PrimeSense. They brought some terrific technology to market and the profited on it.

      That said, I am intrigued by skeletal tracking capabilities inside PCL. This gets really interesting. Have you used them?

    • Angry mac user

      I’ve used PCL but not the skeletal tracking yet. I can tell however that it’s not as performant as NiTE yet. But it’s going to improve in the very near future as it’s one of the improvement suggestion of 2014′s GSOC[1]

      I’m yelling at people’s laptops because this stupid brand really start to fuck with my nerves. They proudly show daito manabe’s work on their mbp 30yrs website, and one month later, they shut down one of rhizomatiks’ main tool [2]
      The problem with apple, is that they are ugly.

      Even Google, as bad as they are, would have never closed such an established opensource framework. This is surrealistic.

      ´1] http://pointclouds.org/gsoc/
      [2] http://rhizomatiks.com/works/

    • Graham Thorne

      How is it PrimseSense fault? The big majority of staff would have had no say, just heard rumours and then *probably* came into work one day to find out they have been bought by apple. One or two directors at most are likely to have made the decision? Bit unfair. I get your anger – i’m angry too. Does anyone know someone who works/worked there? We need some fact.

    • Angry mac user

      True, I’d like to correct with “print a picture of PrimeSense execs”.

      The crew is just a bunch of amazing engineers.

      The directors, however… The guys had many closed source middleware (NiTE, carmine stuff.etc) that would have been PLENTY enough to get enough cash to bury their grand grand grand children in golden human size mac pro 2014.

      Yet they let Apple close the OpenNI framework which was more of a nice big specifications, broadly adopted, that allowed many OpenSource developers and company to coordinate. They put everyone in big shit and were perfectly aware of that.

  • Igor Molochevski

    Supper bad news, there are however couple of projects that soon will hit the market that will solve the issue.

  • Graham Thorne
  • massta
  • Dale Phurrough

    I am the author of dp.kinect and jit.openni. Both of these are extensions to the Cycling74 Max/MSP/Jitter environment and allow rich native support of the Kinect and other OpenNI compliant hardware. Downloads, docs, and more at http://hidale.com/

    OpenNI has been dead since they abandoned the v1.x API a year or two ago. I never ported to their v2 API; I could smell death.

    dp.kinect continues to be updated and is based on Microsoft’s SDK. It works with the v1 Kinect hardware now and I am already porting it to work with the yet unreleased v2 Kinect hardware.

    At some point, you are buying a proprietary product. No mortal is completely open source; that is unless you are making your own diodes, CPU, silicon motherboard, entire OS stack, LCD display, projector, speakers, amp, etc.

    Choose the toolset that works for you and best meets your needs. It Is now…and will likely always be a mix of closed and open source products.

  • naus3a

    I agree: this story is a nice occasion to give people the opportunity to understand why open source matters.

    That being said, I don’t hate PrimeSense, but I have to say that I never liked OpenNI very much: the “almost open” licensing never felt right, the API is so uncomfortable to me (like it gave more emphasis on “looking modular”, than on actually being usable) and, most importantly, I saw way too many crashes without a reason in that closed source NITE middleware…
    As a consequence, I always managed to find a way to use libfreenect in those project that needed a trustworthy base.

    On the other side, Microsoft own both the camera and the libraries, so they have all the right to release an open source Win-only SDK, but this kind of move is not really screaming openness, right? :)