Why I Won’t Wave Up a Movie with Kinect For Netflix

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It took long enough, but Kinect support for Netflix is finally with us–you can download it now, and I’m typing this up from my living room where it’s been running the past few hours.

I haven’t plugged the Kinect sensor into my Xbox 360 for months (sorry, not a fan of motion-tracking tech that tends to lag and misinterpret me half the time) so when I placed the orange power connector in my slimline Xbox 360’s matching port, I half-expected a bunch of “system update!” pop-ups. But no, after a few moments loading, up it came, just as before–no mammoth patches or firmware downloads. It seems Kinect really was ready for primetime when it shipped last November.

So into the Kinect dash I go, looking for the Netflix button…which isn’t there. Because it wasn’t there before, and oh wait, I’m remembering now: You have to drop back out of Kinect-mode, and–silly as that sounds–dial up Netflix using your Xbox 360 gamepad or remote, at which point, aha!, the system prompts you to download the 43MB Kinect update.

A few moments later, update installed, I’m in business (the app automatically re-launches). But Houston, we still have a problem: My first action’s to sign out of Netflix using Kinect by nudging the white hand icon over the back-arrow-circle button and watching the clockwise “select” animation. Bingo, I’m back to the Xbox 360 dashboard. But now I can’t access Netflix without picking up a remote/gamepad, which begs the question: Why isn’t Netflix in the Kinect Hub along with other third-party apps, like Zune and ESPN and last.fm? This is where Microsoft’s logic twists around and comes back lopsided. You add controller-free support to a video streaming platform, but force customers to use a controller to launch it. How does that make sense?

Alright, back to Netflix itself: Once it loads and you’re in the default browsing menu, you’ll notice the Kinect hand icon at bottom-right. Do the little “right-left-right” wakeup wave and it automatically loads something called “Netflix Hub.” Think of this as a motion-control version of “Suggestions For You.” Because it is, and as far as I can tell, that’s all it is. I’ve tried to get it to switch to “Instant Queue,” or “New Arrivals,” or just “Search,” but it stubbornly refuses. “For more choices and search, use your controller,” reads a message at the bottom of the hub. How cute.

If you’re okay watching what Netflix thinks you ought to (for me, a horse-racing series, a dysfunctional family drama, an awful vampire movie, and what looks like another sexploitation horror flick) the interface works the same as the rest of Kinect Hub. Move your hand to the screen edges and the hand-cursor locks to a left or right button that lets you swipe the visible films–four per screen–left or right. Position Kinect’s virtual hand over a movie, hold for a few seconds, and presto, it loads.

From here, the controls dither between “hey cool!” and “what? why the–? huh?” At upper left, you have a stop button, and upper-right, a pause button. Sandwiched between: The video index slider. Reaching up to pause the movie works reasonably well because the clockwise animation takes only a second or two (add the extra time spent waking Kinect, then moving the pointer). Stopping on the other hand takes twice as long, and that’s once you’ve positioned your hand correctly (always a minor feat with Kinect), which in both instances had me itching to pluck up the remote. My motto’s “speed over novelty,” and at this point Kinect’s batting 0 for 2.

The indexing felt squirrelly at first, but with a bit of practice, surprised me: Once you get used to moving your hand left or right incrementally to control fast-forwarding and rewinding, it turned out to be the single improvement over a remote: Instead of the on/off determinism of a remote’s buttons, you can speed up or slow down your scan by modulating your hand position. This actually gives you better control over indexing than any remote I’ve used because you’re able to modulate the rate at which you speed up or slow down.

Of course Kinect’s voice controls trump all, and almost make up for the peripheral’s motion control inadequacies. Say “Xbox” and you conjure the voice command menu, where you can speak the same commands you’d otherwise issue with your fingers, from video selection to video indexing to playback interruption.

The takeaway: Kinect for Netflix serves as a microcosmic example of Kinect’s macrocosmic foibles: The motion controls stink and the voice controls almost make amends (“almost” assuming you don’t have a joker in the room who enjoys counter-calling your commands). So while I won’t wave up a movie with Kinect for Netflix anytime soon, I might keep it around for the voice recognition perks.