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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Developed by the Rare studio, This first-party Microsoft game will almost certainly be the go-to hit for the pre-teen crowd. The game’s alike an HD version of Nintendogs. Players get a virtual pet to train and bond with, and Kinect allows you to reach out and touch it to prompt realistic reactions from the animal to petting, playing and gettingwashed . There’s a mild story about hunting down lost treasure on the remote island, but Kinectimals is really a collections of about half a dozen minigames. Voice commands worked well and the use of head-tracking to control the camera orientation was especially impressive. If you’re getting Kinect and have a kid in the house, expect to buy this game.
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Kinect Joy Ride:
If Kinectimals is the 360’s Nintendogs, then Kinect Joy Ride is Mario Kart by way of Kinect. This racing game takes care of all the accelerating and speed control and all players need to do is thrust hands forward to boost, twist their bodies to trick and pose during prompts to score points. Joy Ride works better than some other Kinect games but it simply feels too shallow to be a game sold for $49.99.
Harmonix’s dance rhythm game does something unique: it takes the sheepishness that accompanies any kind of motion gaming and turns it into fun. Helped along by a great 32-song soundtrack, that feeling of goofy embarrassment you get with waving your arms around in the air goes away because you’re dancing. Breaking down choreography routines into bite-sized poses that you string together makes you feel like you’re actually working it. DC emits an infectious level of enjoyment that makes it the killer app for Kinect. Even though it’ll only read one dancer at a time, put it on at a party and everyone will become back-up dancers.
Sonic Free Riders:
Sega’s crass racing cash-in is the worst Kinect game I played. Its sense of speed feels fake and it fails a majority of the time when tracking anything requiring quick response times. like player jumps over obstacles. The hoverboard sequences look cool but, again, the game just flubs moments when you need to jump from one rail to another. Sonic deserves better.
Coming from the Rare dev team, this title is Microsoft’s most blatant attempt to peel off people from Wii Sports. The assortment of athletic activities–beach volleyball, boxing, bowling, soccer and more– comes across as a mixed bag in terms of execution. Some of them, like serving and volleying in table tennis, require a level of precision that Kinect only meets inconsistently. Twitchy arm spasms during a volleyball match can lead to frustrating losses. The game’s input mechanics are so mysterious that you won’t know how to correct the bugginess.
Kinect feels like the future. But not a future I really want to be playing games with.
(More on Techland: Your Next Move: What You Need to Know About the PS3 Motion Controller)
What I really want is Kinect technology in my TV, my set-top box, my laptop and desktop computers.
In the game space, it feels like Kinect asks for a huge cognitive leap for an experience that’s not a commensurate return. You’re making a big mental step to play mostly shallow mini-games that hit on the lowest common denominator of gesture-based gaming.
Like the Move two months ago, Kinect doesn’t really have a game that makes the hardware a must-buy experience. Dance Central makes the most of the technology for gaming entertainment and Kinectimals‘ cuteness s hard to resist. The games right now all feel too safe. There’s a lot of family-friendly fare in the Kinect launch library, which stands as the surest sign that Microsoft is courting the same casual console market that Nintendo’s exploited since the Wii’s debut. Microsoft’s commitment seems to indicate Kinect’s not going away anytime soon. But the big question is how long it will take for the games to evolve into something as amazing as the device’s underlying technology.