Depending on your view of things, Microsoft has either done a lot of backpedaling or a lot of listening to people’s concerns about the Xbox One.
The company now says Kinect won’t have to be plugged in or turned on while the Xbox One is in use. The motion controller will still be included with every console, but it can stay disconnected unless you’re playing a game that requires Kinect to function. Previously, Microsoft had said the console wouldn’t work unless Kinect was plugged in.
To recap Microsoft’s other recent policy reversals: You’ll be allowed to play games offline and trade disc-based games without restriction. There will be no region locking, so you can buy a game in one continent and play it in another. Just last week, Microsoft decided it will include a headset with the console after all.
Compared to Microsoft’s backtracking on offline play and used games, the change in Kinect policy should be less contentious. Your ability to turn off Kinect doesn’t require any trade-offs, so I can’t imagine anyone being upset about it. Still, the backlash against Kinect was a bit misguided to begin with. Aside from blind paranoia, I’m not sure why you’d want to use the Xbox One with Kinect turned off.
The privacy concerns that Microsoft is responding to are overblown compared to what tech companies are actually doing with users’ data. Granted, the timing of the NSA Prism revelations might make people wary about installing cameras and microphones in their living rooms–particularly ones that must be connected at all times–but as Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo points out, cameras and microphones come standard in practically every computing device we use. Your laptop’s webcam doesn’t secretly record you, and Kinect wouldn’t have done so either.
“When Xbox One is on and you’re simply having a conversation in your living room, your conversation is not being recorded or uploaded,” Microsoft explained in June. For apps that do make use of Kinect, Microsoft said personal data would not leave the console without explicit permission.
Meanwhile, services such as Gmail, Facebook and Skype do store the details of your online activity and will share that information with the government when ordered to do so by a court. In some circumstances that type of government data collection doesn’t require a warrant. If you’re looking for a place to focus your privacy worries, start with those online communication services. Your game console is a poor target by comparison.
Privacy paranoia aside, Kinect promises some clear benefits to being switched on at all times. You can turn the system on with your voice and launch apps from anywhere by speaking instead of navigating through menus. When you pick up a controller, Kinect can recognize who you are and load your profile, so you don’t have to thumb through a bunch of sign in screens. Even if you never intend to play a game with motion controls, the camera and microphone are tools for doing things faster.
The other gripe with Kinect has nothing to do with privacy: Because the motion controller is bundled with the Xbox One, the entire package is more expensive, at $500. It could be the main reason for the $100 price premium over Sony’s PlayStation 4, and a sticking point for people with no interest in voice and video feedback.
But Microsoft isn’t backing down on that front. The rationale is that when Kinect is included with every console, game makers will have more incentive to add voice or motion controls to their games. Tacked-on Kinect features don’t make for a great experience–we know that much from the current Xbox 360–but developers may be more compelled to experiment with Kinect if they know every Xbox One user can take advantage.
In the end, allowing users to unplug Kinect was the right decision, if only because it will make people feel better. But if you’re just going to turn it off, you’re missing one of the main reasons for getting an Xbox One in the first place.