World-beating computer science engineers win UK's top engineering award

This year’s winner of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, the most prestigious award in British engineering, is the Microsoft Research Cambridge team that developed the software for the Kinect for Xbox 360. Leading the team was Professor Andrew Blake, who is a visiting Professor in Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science and a former member of staff at the Department. The development of this software also owes a lot to research undertaken here at the Department some years ago - amongst key contributors were Professor Sir Michael Brady and Professor Andrew Zisserman.

Professor Andrew Blake with John Robinson.
Professor Andrew Blake, Managing Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, with John Robinson, Chairman of the MacRobert judging panel.

Lord Browne of Madingley, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, presented the £50,000 award and gold medal to the Microsoft Research team at London’s Guildhall earlier this month.

The team of engineers was recognised for its work on Kinect for Xbox 360, which allows controller-free gaming. In the two months since its launch last November, Kinect has sold eight million Xbox 360s, making it the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history.

The world’s gamers won’t be the only ones to benefit as the scope of Kinect will broaden to include the control of computers and other machines, at a distance, by speech and by gesture.  For example, Kinect will enable surgeons to use a hands-free computer in the operating theatre.

Before Kinect, equipment for motion-capture was commercially available but required instrumentation of the moving human subject, in the form of markers placed on all body joints. Previous attempts at markerless motion capture would fail under rapid body motion, meaning an effective system was not available.

The Microsoft Research laboratory applied machine learning techniques to build a capability to analyse depth images independently. It classified pixels in each depth image as belonging to one of 31 body parts, drawing on previous work from the Cambridge laboratory on the recognition of objects in photographs.

The classifier was trained and tested using a very large database of pre-classified images, covering varied poses and body types. It was engineered so efficiently that it uses only a fraction of the total available computing capacity – essential to the practical success of Kinect.

John Robinson, Chairman of the MacRobert judging panel, said: “Professor Blake and his team have taken Kinect from a first speculative idea to a retail product in just two years and their technical knowledge and achievements are quite outstanding. This is world-beating engineering by a world-leading team based in the UK.”

Acknowledgements: Business Weekly