Searching for the Kinect Killer App

We at NextView have been thinking about and looking for investments in seed-stage startups which leverage the megatrend of transitioning computing away from a standard fixed-web PC world.  Of course that includes “mobile-first” applications and companies which ride the adoption of tablet devices (more on those in upcoming posts).  But this exploration also includes alternative user-interfaces and inputs, like gesture controls.

In the past month or two, it’s become especially salient to me that the release of the Microsoft Kinect Developer Platform last summer is something fundamentally game-changing.  Between conversations in I’ve had in the past few weeks with folks at Microsoft NERD in Cambridge about the February release of Kinect for Windows, to all the recent media coverage like this Economist article about gesture-driven interfaces and Bloomberg coverage about the device specifically, to last week Gather Education absolutely wow’ing the crowd with its Kinect-powered virtual classroom to win the Audience Choice award at the Web Innovators Group event which I host quarterly, I am realizing the real potential of this platform outside the gaming environmentAnytime a fundamentally new platform is introduced, it creates white-space… especially for startups.

So I thought I’d think aloud in generating a thesis set about the profile set of early successful companies on the platform will look like.  I think that the first couple breakout Kinect-enabled non-gaming startups will possess four qualities:

  1. Integration of Kinect into the entire experience, not as an afterthought.   Although early versions of the mouse as an input device appeared in the early 60’s, it wasn’t until twenty years later in 1984 with its inclusion in the Apple Macintosh box did it really hit the mainstream – and it’s largely due to that the GUI utilized a mouse in a way that was integrated into how the entire operating system worked.  Similarly, a breakout Kinect-powered startup will go beyond just the “wow & cool” factor as a feature and meaningfully integrate the functionality of the gesture-driven controls into product itself.
  2. Transcend gaming but with users from this same demographic of install-base.  As of this past January, there were already 12M installations of the Kinect device on gaming consoles.  While Microsoft is touting that over 350 companies are working with Microsoft on custom Kinect applications ranging from in the medical field to manufacturing, I suspect that the real first killer-app outside gaming for the Kinect won’t far too far afield from its current install base.  Afterall, there are literally millions of console gamers already using the product, and early Kinect for Windows buyers will be gamers as well.  It’s much easier to have end-user consumers utilize a device which they already have for another function than spur adoption of a new set of end-users to purchase a product entirely de novo.
  3. Inherently social.   Two Kinects are better than one, it seems.  Given the technology helps “humanize” how people interact with computing in a natural way, I believe that the first breakout apps will leverage one of the most human of human activity – social interaction.  Given that base plus the inherent viral component to these social apps, it seems natural that the first overnight success of a Kinect-powered app will be a social one.
  4. Mash-up of many other technology platforms.  The Kinect platform is a building block which isn’t an end in and of itself, but rather it by definition needs other components.  I suspect the first breakout hits will be something that starts out just as a mini-project (perhaps on a hack weekend) that “merely” mashes up a couple interesting APIs to make a whole sum greater than its component parts.  As Chris Dixon is fond of saying, “the next big thing will start out looking like a toy.”  The easiest way to create something perceived (initially) as a “toy” is to quickly conceive and execute a project with a number of component parts off of the shelf.

Though the program is 3000 miles away, I am especially excited to see what startups emerge from the TechStars Kinect Accelerator program which is going to be held in this spring in Seattle.  Given the emerging trendline of the startups which graduate from this series of programs (of which I am a mentor here in Boston), this TechStars class focused on a particular input platform is especially unique.  Luckily, we have the Kinect Boston Meetup here locally.

As merely a participant but not a creator in the technology innovation ecosystem, it’s challenging for me to clearly articulate where the real innovation is going to sprout.  But I am confident in saying that there we’re on the precipice of something big here with the Kinect platform, whether it’s in the next couple months or next couple years.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.