New Kinect for Windows offers increased accuracy to healthcare startups

By: Jonah Comstock | Jul 14, 2014        

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new kinectThe new Kinect, the second generation of Microsoft’s motion capture camera technology, has been making healthcare headlines for nearly a year now as a few select companies were able to tinker with prototypes. The version of the device that was connected to the Xbox One gaming console was made available back in November. But starting tomorrow, Kinect for Windows version 2 will be available commercially, complete with a software development kit (SDK) for developers.

The new Kinect (its official name, as Microsoft confusingly objects to the appellation “Kinect 2″) is actually not an updated version of the old hardware, but instead a totally new device that tracks motion in a different way, using a technology called “time of flight” rather than structured light. Microsoft has cut ties with original Kinect developer PrimeSense, which has since been acquired by Apple. 

“Technologically it has a lot of advantages,” Spencer Hutchins, CEO of West Health spin-off Reflexion Health, told MobiHealthNews. “The breadth of its view is great; it has a fishbowl lens. One thing about the old Kinect is you had to stand pretty far away from it. The new version is quite a bit better, as well as the general improvement in the accuracy of the tracking, which unlocks a number of clinical use cases in which precision is important.”

MobiHealthNews spoke with Hutchins and GestSure CEO Jamie Tremaine last fall for “Kinect the Docs,” our report on the Microsoft Kinect’s impacts in healthcare. We caught up with both of them to talk about how the release of the new Kinect will affect their business.

Reflexion’s motion tracking system, called Rehabilitation Measurement Tool (RMT), uses a personal computer running Kinect to provide interactive feedback and educational materials based on the patient’s progress with their physical therapy. The aim is to help physical therapists and physicians to more easily track a patient’s rehab progress, but the longterm goal is to improve patient adherence to a prescribed physical therapy program, too.

Hutchins said that, for Reflexion, the advantages of the new technology would be incremental at first, especially because the SDK doesn’t initially include all of the features of the new Kinect. Heart rate tracking, based on minute skin coloration changes, is one of the noteworthy facets of the new technology, but it isn’t included in the SDK. Still that works out fine for Hutchins, who is focusing on orthopedic use cases first. He hopes by the time Reflexion is ready to focus on cardiac rehabilitation, the heart rate tracking feature will be ready for implementation.

Tremaine’s company GestSure is using the Kinect to create a hands-free computer interface for scrubbed-in surgeons to access radiological images in the operating room. For both Hutchins and Tremaine, the wider field of view and the increased accuracies are the major draws of the new technology.

“I can just make all the gestures twice as sensitive,” Tremaine told MobiHealthNews. “That increases comfort and ergonomics, so the entire stance is just better, more comfortable.”

The device’s camera is sensitive enough to tell an open hand from a closed hand and determine the position of the thumb, which makes it better at detecting gestures. It’s still not sensitive enough to read the movement of all the bones and muscles in the hand, so its use for fine motor rehabilitation is still some years off. In addition, the new Kinect can track up to six distinct bodies at the same time, a feature that can increase clarity in the operating room for GestSure or potentially allow Reflexion’s telerehabilitation software to be implemented in a group setting.

GestSure has been commercially launched since 2012 and Reflexion has a number of pilots ongoing. But in a sense, GestSure, Reflexion, and the other companies working on medical implementations of the Kinect have been holding off from scaling and widespread implementation until the long-promised new technology came along.

“We’ve got a few live implementations in which we’re relatively small scale for the time being, a handful or dozens of patients concurrently, and a combination of more testing and a few places embedding that into their clinical workflow,” said Hutchins. “Working out the kinks and making the transition to the new camera and the new experiences it enables. We’re looking to finish the trials and make that transition before we start to scale more broadly.”

Though improved accuracy might seem like a minor update compared to heart rate tracking and reading more people at once, in the medical field robustness and reliability of measurement are hugely important.

“In many systems out there, it’s ok if it works 99 percent of the time,” said Tremaine. “In our space, 99 percent is totally unacceptable. That’s one failure in 100 and that’s not acceptable for a surgical tool. So that’s one of the big challenges.”