The Kinect is one of the most amazing pieces of consumer hardware on the planet. It can recognize the human anatomy with incredible logic and accuracy. And when Microsoft’s new Xbox One comes out next month, every unit will be packaged with an improved Kinect, capable of 1080p Skype video and improved 3-D fidelity that, using an IR camera, can even make out your body in the dark. With extreme specificity.
In fact, while I’d intended to post the above tech demo of the improved Kinect from Microsoft Research, I noticed, alongside the intricacies of a hoodie and jeans—and there’s no graceful way to put this—a dong. The Kinect hardware/software is now so effective at deciphering the bumps and folds of clothing that it can pinpoint a man’s package down to its pant leg, carving out the distinctive folds in our trousers that society, backed by a bit of shadowy denim, has become remarkable at ignoring.
As soon as I made the observation, it brought me back to a moment I must have repressed during the Xbox One announcement at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond. Testing the new Kinect in a cozy room, I, amongst a small handful of journalists and engineers who I didn’t know, caught a glance at my own man
lump snake python on the screen. I felt the fear of every ninth-grade boy called up to the chalkboard.
Truthfully, a small percentage of Xbox owners may ever have such an experience. This topographical view is essentially a debug mode (I believe, accessible to gamers, but far from standard), and most Kinect experiences will likely render you as a bubbly asexual cartoon or a character with stock anatomy, smoothing over everything from hoodie strings to the overzealous nipples.
But as everyday technologies get better at seeing us naked, it does call to question: Should developers start thinking about censoring their imaging APIs? Should a company like Microsoft algorithmically smooth over chests, rears, and crotches at the core layers of their technology to protect a user’s chastity in the uncanny valley of nudity? Because while the Kinect isn’t nearly as anatomically omniscient as the TSA’s controversial millimeter wave scanners and Backscatter X-ray machines, it’s still processing our anatomy at a level more acute than the human eye, and it’s only going to get better.
As absurd as this problem may sound, the consoles have a history of designing around sexuality—what most of us would agree is a necessary countermeasure on platforms where five-year-olds may interact with 50-year-olds. Xbox Live gamertags and profiles, for instance, ban "topics or content of a sexual nature." (This policy led to mass bannings of subscribers who used the words "gay" and "lesbian" a few years ago, when Microsoft clarified the policy was not driven by an anti-gay agenda, but because a vast majority of users were using those words as insults.) The Nintendo Wii U took on dongs in a more direct manner, when their latest console allowed users to draw on the walls of Miiverse message boards: The company actually developed algorithms derived from popular, Western styles of penis sketch to detect and block phallic imagery. (Crafty artists beat the code, but Nintendo’s heart was in the right place.)
Almost everything in this article is laughable, so I’m not going to pretend that Microsoft is violating us, or spotting anything that a strong squint couldn’t already see. And I’m certainly not going to imply that some exacerbated shadowing around someone’s crotch will defile the youth of our society. The new Kinect certainly isn’t malevolent; it’s just engineering that works a bit too well, and is sharing that a half step more socially than we might want it to be.
As increasingly capable technologies become more personal, we’re going to have to think less about what we can do, and more about what we shouldn't do. Whether it's Kinect staring at our crotches, Amazon peeking into our buying habits, or Facebook leering at our social life, the technology industry will have to continually strike a design balance between the granular information they see and the information about ourselves that we see.
Because if I’ve learned one thing in 31 years of masculinity, it’s that nobody ever wants to see my placket-racket flopping around in the living room.