What is Kinect? Kinect is a motion sensing device that works with the Xbox game console and allows people to use their movements to play. For example, if you move your arm, the character on screen throws a ball.
Why is this important to non-gamers? It's important because people are hacking the Kinect for activities beyond games. And in this case I mean 'hacking' in a good way--as in learning to use a tool and then repurposing it for something new.
Microsoft released the Kinect in November 2010 to compete with Nintendo's popular Wii system. People saw the potential of the device and wanted to use it for things other than games. A company offered a bounty for an open-source driver to use with the Kinect. The signals from Microsoft were mixed, and they may have even taken part in the bounty, but soon people were uploading videos of their Kinect projects to the Internet.
Having looked at several sites with "Top 10 Kinect Hacks" or "Dozen Best Kinect Hacks," I saw a lot of creativity and neat tricks, but not much I thought was practical. Then I found this video made by Luis de Matos which demonstrates a robotic shopping cart that follows a person in a wheelchair around a store. The first part of the video shows how difficult it is to push a conventional cart around when the person is also trying to propel their own wheelchair, and the second half shows how a robotic cart using the Kinect makes things so much easier. Amazing.
In June of this year, Microsoft released a non-commercial software development kit (SDK). Normally, SDKs are for companies to use making games for a particular console. But in this case, Microsoft is putting these tools in the hands of people who want to experiment and innovate. Which means that people like de Matos can make things to help others. And that's very cool.
(I first saw the shopping cart video at Popsci, and Wikipedia has a detailed article on the Kinect. The pic of people playing the Kinect is from theelectricgeneration. You can also see the same video with an English explanation beneath at vimeo.)