When I first saw the Kinect in action, back when it was still known as Project Natal, I thought it looked like a gimmick and little else. It seemed to have potential, but potential doesn’t sell units, and the possibilities of what may come weren’t going to replace my beloved buttons. After using the Kinect at E3, my opinion was strengthened, and after playing a game where the whole point was to slide a root beer down a bar top, I left convinced that the Kinect would not be the gaming revolution that Microsoft has been pitching it as.
But then we received the Kinect to test, and the more I had the chance to use it, the more I realized that I am not, nor was I ever the target audience for the Kinect. If you are a hardcore gamer, the Kinect is not for you (at least not yet). The Kinect is an attempt to position Microsoft in the same fertile market that the Nintendo Wii opened up with dynamite, and maybe more. After truly having the chance to test it out, I have to admit that Microsoft may have a winner on its hands.
What Kinect is
The Kinect is a single sensor bar that contains two depth sensors, and a standard RGB camera. Depth is a huge feature of the Kinect, and the cameras can track both your movement from side-to-side, as well as front-to-back and up and down, making the entire range of movements potentially game controls. The Kinect also features a built-in microphone that allows voice-activated commands when applicable, and the vocal feature does pop up in games now and again.
After a quick calibration, the hardware is ready to go, and you can activate it in the dashboard at any time by simply waving your hand. When you do, it brings up a specially designed interface called the Kinect hub, that allows you to navigate through the dashboard without a controller.
The Kinect also features video chat between you and other Kinect-wielding Xbox users that are Xbox Live Gold members. It is the evolution of the party chat that Xbox has been building up, and for some, this alone may make the Kinect worth the purchase, especially for people who have friends across the world. Think of it like Skype, but on a bigger screen with more equipment. The video chat also works with Windows Live Messenger, so while this feature may not be prominently displayed in most of the commercials, it is an excellent addition to the unit.
To register a command with the Kinect, any Kinect-friendly program will feature a large icon on the screen. When you move your hand, there will be a mirror image of your hand on the screen. To activate a command, you simply hold your hand over the prompt and a bar will quickly fill up, replacing the touch of a button. In most cases you can also make a side to side motion to scroll between screens. The only limitation is the software, but the idea of holding your hand over the necessary command seems to be fairly uniform throughout the Kinect games and apps.
So far the launch titles for the Kinect range in theme from the average sports games designed for the simplified controls, to dance-themed games, which require that your movements match the on screen prompts. Kinect’s hardware typically incorporates the movement of your own body in ways that interact with the games. If you want to kick a ball, you actually kick. To throw a punch, you physically throw a punch. The Kinect offers a full range of motion tracking, so if your character needs to jump, you need to jump. The titles out so far are fairly basic in their offerings, but that is true for the launch of most video game consoles. We will offer up full reviews on each of the launch titles as well.
Unlike the PlayStation Move, the Kinect requires games to be made specifically for it — there is no simple way to allow games to become Kinect-compatible. So this is not a replacement for a controller, it is something new altogether.
The technology itself is fairly impressive. It builds upon things you may have seen before like the PlayStation Eye, the Wii nunchucks, and webcams with the ability to gauge depth, but it presents it in a new way which makes it a unique device on the market. It also seems like a potentially easy translation from the Kinect into the computing world as a possible addition to a mouse, and a replacement for touchscreens. That might still be a few years away, but hands-free commands are the direction the industry seems to be heading.
One thing to keep in mind while using the Kinect, is that you will need some space. The Kinect requires that players stand six to eight feet from the sensor, and you will need roughly six feet to move from side to side. This might not be an issue for most, but if you live in, say, a studio apartment, the Kinect might not work for you. It shouldn’t be a major issue, but it is a limitation worth noting.
Unlike the Wii, the Kinect is only capable of accepting two players at a time. Most games that can, still feature four player modes with players switching off, but in that, the Wii does have a slight advantage. It really is somewhat unfair to compare the Kinect and the Wii, even though it is inevitable. The two systems are different in so many ways, but they are both going to target the same demographics this holiday season.
Another problem that many have been reporting is that people with dark skin might not be immediately recognized by the cameras on the Kinect. It should only affect the facial recognition, not the movement, but it is rarely a good idea to promote a product that doesn’t work well with a minority group. Again, this probably isn’t a huge deal, but it is something you will be hearing more about. Poor lighting can also cause problems, as can direct sunlight, but both are problems that can be easily solved.
The biggest problem I have with the Kinect is something that is a personal issue, so I will label it as such. The Kinect is not for hardcore gamers. The inherent limitations of the controller make it slanted for a different audience that wants different things out of gaming. For me, the more controller options — i.e., the more buttons — the better. It is difficult to become totally immersed in a video game when you are actively participating in it. That doesn’t mean it is not fun — far from it — just a different kind of fun than most longtime gamers look for.
Microsoft wants the Kinect to appeal to an audience that is not typically into video games. There will of course be a huge crossover of long time gamers, but odds are they will use it more for party games and the occasional change of pace than as a new way to play games. There might be titles coming in the future from very clever developers who have discovered a way to unleash the true gaming potential of the Kinect, but that is still a long way off if it ever happens.
The biggest problem for gamers that most casual fans might not see as a major issue is that there is roughly a half-second lag. The Kinect does not have a built-in processor, so there is an issue with a small delay that is simply part of the nature of the controller. For most games this is a non-issue, especially games that will require actions as basic as jumping. But when you try to transfer that system over to a fighting game for example, or any game that requires quick reaction speeds, the delay is going to be tough for long-time gamers to accept.
Again though, the Kinect is not for long time gamers, but rather casual players, and that is where the Kinect shines, because at the core of everything is the one simple fact that the Kinect is fun.