Has The Future Of Gaming Arrived?

First Impressions Of Kinect

November 10, 2010
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Way back when the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii were making their big debuts (with the Wii coming a bit later, actually) I remember Microsoft saying something to the effect that they tried motion controllers once (with PC gaming), that they didn’t have much success with them, there wasn’t much of demand for them, and the Wii would at best find a niche market with its little gimmick of motion controls. What a difference a few years makes. Not only did the Wii find more than a niche market, it tapped into the previous untapped “casual crowd” with it’s user friendly controls. So after a few years of being dominated by an under-powered, non-HD console that didn’t cater exclusively to the hardcore gamer, Microsoft has changed their tune. They’re still doing things their way, but they’ve obviously studied the Wii playbook and now hope to get a chunk of that “niche” market that’s been printing money for Nintendo and the Wii. Kinect is here, and the question is; is it the Wii-killer Microsoft hopes it will be?

Kinect takes motion controlled gaming to a new level by completely removing the controller. Time will tell if this will prove satisfying for gamers, but it at least helps set Microsoft apart from the Wii and the PSWii (also known as Playstation Move). Kinect is quite a collection of hi-tech. It has a camera that sees you and measures your movement in 3D space. It features voice and face recognition. And it combines all of this in one slick looking gizmo that sits above or below your TV and makes you the star of playing games. You are the controller. Great. Does it work?

Time will ultimately answer that question, just as it did with the Wii. Initially, however, Kinect has a lot of potential. Yes it works, but just how far it can be integrated with gaming remains to be seen. The Kinect launch line-up certainly demonstrates what it’s capable of. As to the question of lag, yes there is some, but no more than what you have with the Wii (minus MotionPlus). It’s slight, but not detrimental. How well games are developed for Kinect will ultimately determine how much of an issue it is (i.e. with Kinect Sports or Dance Central, not a big deal, with Fighters Uncaged it’s a deal breaker.) So the short term answer is Kinect does what it says it does; it senses your body motions and translates them into a game making your movements the controller for the game. It responds to your voice commands, you can navigate menus like Minority Report with just a wave of your hand, and it’s novel fun. However, there are a few caveats.

First, you need a lot of space for Kinect; 5 to 6 feet for single players, 8 to ten feet for multi-player plus plenty of elbow room. That’s a lot empty space needed for it to work. Apartment dwellers may have a hard time finding that much space without doing a lot of furniture moving. We’re lucky. Our living room is basically one big rectangle. Simply swinging our coffee table to the side of the room provides plenty of space, but I just don’t imagine it’ll be that easy for everyone.

Next, Kinect doesn’t become your default controller for everything on your Xbox 360. It use of voice command and motions for navigating menus is…sporadic. You can do a few things under specific circumstances with voice command. The same is true with the motions. In the Kinect hub you can wave your hands and make your selections (which is a lot of fun, actually); but it’d be nice if that were true for all Xbox 360 menus if you have Kinect. Voice commands are also limited to basic things like getting to the Kinect hub, getting back to the dashboard, closing the tray and so forth. I’d forget this and try to get to Netflix or start a game just by talking to my Xbox. Once I started using Kinect, I naturally wanted to use it for everything, but that’s just not how it works…yet. Keep that controller handy, because you’ll be switching back forth between fancy voice command and motion controls and your regular Xbox 360 controller.

I should also mention that Kinect has a little trouble with excited kids who find it fascinating to wave at it, dance around in front of it, and generally mug for the camera. I thought my poor sensor was going to start pouring out smoke as my kids just couldn’t get over the novelty that daddy’s gaming console could actually see and respond to them. Lots of movement will confuse it and cause its responses to be spastic and sporadic.

Setting up Kinect isn’t too difficult. However, if you don’t have the new Xbox 360s (the shiny 250gig or the matte 4gig slim model) you’ll have to use one of the USB ports for Kinect. So if you’re like me and have a wireless adapter plugged into the back and a play and charge kit plugged into one on the front to keep your controllers charged, once you plug in Kinect all of those USB slots are taken. To play something like Beatles Rock Band, unless you have all wireless peripherals for it, you’ll need to do a lot of switching of components. Also with the older Xbox 360s you’ll have to plug in Kinect’s separate power cord, whereas with the new models Kinect draws power from the console.

Calibration is easy if a bit time consuming. It measures background noise in your room, it checks lighting conditions, scans you in the area you intend to play in to see if there’s enough space, and will have you move to different points in the room and stand at different angles to help with facial recognition. All easily done, but it does take a bit of time and patience. I was pleased that despite the fact our living room isn’t exactly brightly lit at night, Kinect still functioned just fine (although it did have a little trouble with facial recognition in the low light). During the day, our many windows allow plenty of light to come in, and Kinect works flawlessly under those conditions. If you want to fine tune things, you can go into the Kinect calibrator and finesse things just the way you like.

So Kinect works as advertised, but now it’s up to the developers to implement it in interesting ways. While you can do some cool things with it, it’s not really integrated all that will with the Xbox 360 as the voice commands and motion controls for navigating through menus only work under certain conditions. This limitation, the large amount of space needed to play, and the selection of games that play-off the novelty of it more than using it in interesting ways makes the $150 price tag for Kinect a bit steep. Still, compared with how much it costs to get extra motion controllers for the Wii or the PS Move, it’s not an outrageous amount. You’ll spend about the same amount getting two full sets of controllers for either of the other consoles. Thus far my reaction to Kinect has been lukewarm at best. It’s fun, that’s for sure. I still get a kick out of just waving my hands to make menu selections or talking to my console to get it to do things, and many of the games are novel fun as well (we’ll have more those as we play them). It’s an interesting piece of technology and it definitely has some potential, but until it’s more fully integrated to the dashboard navigation and the games start using it in innovative and interesting ways, it’s exactly what the Wii was when it debuted; a novelty with plenty of potential to change how we play games. I’m excited about the possibilities, but the execution at this early stage of Kinect’s existence feels a bit…hesitant. Hopefully it’ll find more confident footing soon.