When Microsoft announced its new control scheme (originally codenamed Natal), there were a lot of skeptics. I have seen Kinect before at several demo events, and I was both intrigued (because of the concept) and underwhelmed (because of some glitches and latency issues). Now that I have had a chance to sit down with it, I have to say that it is a pretty neat product!
For the uninitiated, Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360 is a device that allows you to communicate with the console via gestures, spoken commands as well as images; plugging into the USB port, and powered externally (via an AC wall plug; if you have a new “slim” Xbox 360: Auxiliary port), the Kinect peripheral has a built-in RGB camera that works hand-in-hand with a depth sensor to detect your major joints, allowing it to know where you are in 3D space; it has fairly decent detection range, along with a motorized tilt mechanism that can pivot the unit up or down (not too much, but enough to freak you out when you turn it on the first time); contained within, there is also a multi-array microphone that has four sampling channels that work together to localize sound sources. The unit is solid and has a decent weight, so it doesn’t feel flimsy (although, I wouldn’t recommend using it as a boomerang).
It’s like an onyx Johnny-5.
Setting up the Kinect unit is fairly easy; I have a “traditional” Xbox 360 (read: no AUX Port), so I used the included adaptor that splits the AUX plug into USB and and AC plug. The Kinect software painlessly takes you through the calibration of the unit (visual and auditory), establishing base noise levels and how much room you have to play; in a short time you are up and running. The Kinect recognizes some default gestures that allow you to activate some key screens: waving at the camera will get the attention of Kinect, while standing straight with your left arm extended down and slightly away from the left side of your body will activate the Kinect Hub.
Kinect Hub is a new menu on your Xbox that is entirely driven by a controller-less you! I haven’t seen Minority Report, but apparently the interface feels like the technology portrayed in that film. The gesture system is intuitive; a small hand on the screen is a fairly accurate representation of your hand in front of the TV; move your hand to a selection, hold still, and a small “timer” appears – holding your hand on any selection for a few seconds will activate it. It’s an interesting system; a bit clunky, but a step in the right direction (I was thinking that maybe grabbing, pressing, or flicking your selection would be a good way to get rid of the current selection scheme, if only for the sake of speeding it up and making it less awkward).
While this looks rad, I can’t help but think this family is boring for having no art on the walls.
Voice commands are another way to interface with the unit; speaking “Xbox” will bring up the voice commands that you can say aloud, and the unit will do what you command. This is a very cool feature, and the pop-up indicates that if you can see it on the screen, you can speak the command; this includes things like media playback, which adds a whole new dimension to the control scheme (Star Trek, anyone?). Previous experiences with this feature were not so successful; I suspect that the noise level in the venues where the demos were held had something to do with it; in the quiet of my own house, though, it worked like a charm. So far, so cool!
The list price for Kinect is about $150, which makes it somewhat of an expensive venture if you plan on playing alone; other systems cost far less for a single-player experience; however, the Kinect sensor can detect up to six people with two of those six being active players, evening the playing field, as you don’t need to buy extra peripherals. This is quite impressive, but there are small problems when someone walks within range of the sensor while another person is playing: the wayward spectator can sometimes steal control from the actual player! Given that a good chunk of the folks that will be buying a Kinect don’t have cavernous areas in which they play videogames, I suspect that this problem will crop up more often than not. That being said, I hope that this bug is going to be worked out sooner than later, allowing for interference-free gameplay.
You will be doing a lot of this. Every Kinect owner will gain the bonus of having massive quads.
I was a little disappointed to see that the latency issue still exists; if you move slowly, Kinect will follow you well enough – in games, your character will appear to be doing everything that you are, tracking at the same pace. The problems emerge when you move quickly; there is a significant delay between your motion and the motion of your avatar, so any games involving fine timing will be somewhat challenging. While not a deal-breaker, this is very annoying to me; in one of the games, you have to dodge around obstacles; all I can say is: good luck. The idea of delay also extends to the voice commands; picking up the controller and pressing a button to pause something is definitely faster than having to say “Xbox” -waiting a moment or two- and then “pause” or whatever command you use. Again, I’m hoping that these issues will be worked out sooner than later.
Even with those negative points, I think the Kinect sensor is a neat innovation; not only does it remove the controller from your hand, allowing a new way to interface with your machine; it also allows you to spend a bit more time off the couch in a way that differs from other systems. Additionally, with rumours that the Kinect sensor will be able to work with the next version of Windows, things can only get better!
Kinect is available now; one can purchase it on its own, or in with an Xbox 360 to capitalize on the economics of the bundled contents. Watch this space in the next few weeks for some reviews of games for Kinect (which can be conveniently found in purple DVD hardcases, instead of the usual Xbox 360 green ones).