Utilizing Kinect's motion tracking and facial recognition, Avatar Kinect takes ordinary video calls into a fully virtual environment giving each user a facial expressions and gestures-reproducing avatar. First unveiled at CES 2011 in January, Avatar Kinect is now available free to try until September 8, while later it will be available to Xbox LIVE Gold subscribers only.

Avatar Kinect allows the user and up to seven other people to choose one of 24 virtual chat environments. Those include a talkshow-themed stage, magic forest, space, sports party, or news broadcast stage. Each user gets his own avatar which works as a real-time representation of the way the user smiles, nods, speaks, etc. It's also possible to take the avatar into a performance stage and try your hand as a singer, or a stand-up comedian for instance. The performance can be captured as an animated video and shared through social websites.

One key advantage of Avatar Kinect as a telepresence meeting service is that it requires much less bandwidth than regular video calls. "In fact, it takes little more than the bandwidth of the voice call itself in order to be able to animate the avatar in real time completely," said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer. Only movement commands are being send, while the avatar's animation is "based on the computation at the other end."

Avatar Kinect is now available as a 658.5MB download on Kinect Fun Labs - an Xbox LIVE service with experimental minigames and tools utilizing Kinect sensor that was launched in June 2011. The service has already launched some Kinect-based applications and its plans include introducing them on a regular basis.

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