Strong Kinect-ion?: First Impressions of Microsoft’s New Motion-Control Camera

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Microsoft’s been trying to position Kinect as not just a new peripheral for their resurgent Xbox 360, but as a new console. The way they’ve handled the marketing and the dissemination of information about Kinect bears all the hallmarks of carefully managed ambition. But, ultimately, its impact will get driven by how developers and consumers embrace the device.

So, should you give Microsoft’s big gamble a limp handshake or a big hug? We’ve spent the last week or so living with Kinect and can offer up a few impressions if you’re still unsure whether it’s for you. What follows are early impressions based on testing it out in real-world conditions.

(More on Techland: Microsoft Unveils Launch List for Kinect, Upcoming Oprah Appearance)

Price of entry:

There’s no getting around the fact that $150 feels like a lot for what’s essentially a cutting-edge webcam. Yes, Kinect does things that no other device on the market does right now. But, I can’t shake the feeling that Microsoft’s asking the consumer to retroactively subsidize the research that led to Kinect. I mean, you can get a whole Wii (should you be one of the three people in the U.S.A who don’t already have one) for $200. Coming in at about $50, the cost of Kinect games deviate slightly from the $60 that you’d pay for games without motion control, so there’s a small savings at least.

Feel:

The big gimmick with Kinect is, of course, that there is no controller. So, instead of focusing on the heft of the device itself, I can say that the feel of the experience is mid-altering. Much has been made about Kinect replicating the iconic scenes from Minority Report, where Tom Cruise’s character controls a computer interface with simple gestures. Using it isn’t quite as slick as the Hollywood movie magic in the Spielberg film but Those promises are, in large part, kept. You can hover your hand over a content panel to launch it or can just speak the corresponding words and as long as they’re preceded by the word “Xbox,” Kinect will recognize it as a command.

Voice control turned out to be the feature that won me over the most. There’s no training necessary for Kinect; you don’t need to educate it as to how your voice sounds, like you do with many text-to-speech or voice recognition programs. Straight out the box, I was navigating through menus and launching games but saying keywords. I found myself wishing I could control all the gear in my entertainment unit in the same way.

The skeletal and silhouette tracking, voice and facial recognition all make Kinect feel like something a time traveler left behind before going back to the future.

Responsiveness:

But those features don’t always work perfectly. I’ve spent nearly a week with Kinect at this point and still am puzzled by the ideal lighting situation for usage. Natural light behind me seemed to drive it crazy but moderate electric light made the play area too dark for me to be picked up accurately. When conditions are ideal, it works as mostly advertised. Things can go haywire in Kinect with avatar limbs suddenly bending in unrealistic directions and twitching when your own are perfectly still. It’s apparent that different studios and publishers have had varying success in developing for Kinect. Some games want you closer to the camera than others and the movement tracking on some games isn’t even close to one-to-one.

Graphics:

Most of the first-party Kinect games have innocuous cartoony graphics that are meant to connect back the art style of your cuddly Xbox Live avatar. You know that the Xbox can do hyper-realistic graphics but most Kinect games shy away from that look. Dance Central from Harmonix and Ubisoft’s Fighters Uncaged are the most obvious exceptions.

Set-Up and Calibration:

Getting Kinect active on your 360 is as simple as plugging in a wire and downloading some updates. (Older Xbox models will need to use an included cable to plug into a separate power supply.) You don’t need to charge it up or anything like that.

Kinect does put you through a few paces to familiarize itself with your body and position in space. This is where you’ll run into the biggest gripe about the device. You’ll need lots of room to work with it. I’m in a small New York City apartment and had to move around furniture to get the best experience. And that was just for single-player. For multiplayer, each body needs a fair amount of space surrounding it so that Kinect can read gestures accurately.

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