Want to know what you look like playing Kinect? Check the video posted with this article. Yes, that's me. As soon as I watched this clip, which was captured and edited automatically while playing track and field games in Kinect Sports, I realized (with some regret) that it must accompany my review of Microsoft's new controller-less game platform for the Xbox 360 It's been nearly 18 months since the Redmond-based company first unveiled this innovative new way to interface with games, and in that time there has been plenty of speculation not only regarding its performance but also whether it will make for fun gaming.
Some quick answers: the technology works pretty well most of the time, and - as my foolish, smiling self makes clear - I was obviously having some fun.
But before going into details on the experience, let's get back to what Kinect is.
The device is a sleek and shiny black bar designed to match the new 250GB version of Microsoft's console. It contains depth sensing cameras, an RGB camera, and multiple microphones. It is placed above or below your television and sits on a mechanized base that automatically tilts up and down as necessary to frame the action.
The sensors work together to allow players to control onscreen elements with body and voice. As Microsoft's ads succinctly state, you are the controller. So, make like you're kicking a ball and your avatar will do the same. Spin an imaginary steering wheel with your hands and watch your onscreen car turn in that direction. It's that simple.
Kinect makes this sort of control possible by recognizing and delineating joints in the human frame. Step in front of the bar and it will instantly recognize your head, upper arms, forearms, and hands, as well as your torso, thigh, and calves. Put another way, it understands that you - as opposed to a chair or a dog - are a human, and it will interpret specific human movements as commands.
You can walk out of the play area and back in again without undue disruption (games typically pause, then automatically start back up again). Players can switch out with one another with no need to stop the game or re-calibrate the sensors. It can even recognize two players at once for multiplayer games - though be careful; with our eyes trained on the screen, arms flailing and feet shuffling, my daughter and I ended up whacking and bumping into each other more than once.
Which brings us to space requirements. Kinect requires a ton of room. While working through onscreen setup you'll see a diagram that shows people moving a coffee table, couch, and chairs out of the way in order to play. That is exactly what I had to do. You'll be leaping left and right, taking steps forward and back, and swinging your arms around (again, I somewhat embarrassedly direct you to the Kinect Sports video for evidence).
I measured the clear space that I felt was necessary to play a variety of games and found it to be a minimum of four metres deep and two metres wide. Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, a fitness game from Ubisoft, required the most depth (I had to move my couch into the kitchen), while playing with two players in Kinect Adventures - a game that had my partner and I steering a raft by shuffling across its deck and avoiding obstacles in a gauntlet by ducking, jumping, and dodging - required the most width. If you live in a suburban home that's probably not a big deal. For a family like mine that lives in a downtown high-rise, it means we have to move all of our furniture whenever we want to play. In fact, I'm not sure what has made me stiffer: All of the motion based gaming I've been doing or moving my furniture around every night for a week.
But aching muscles may well be a price worth paying. My family had a lot of fun with several of the games we tried. My daughter adored a pet training game called Kinectimals that let her reach into the air to touch and play with beautifully rendered tiger and lion cubs. And I enjoyed the natural movements involved in Dance Central - a booty-shaker from the folks behind Rock Band that has players learning real dance moves that incorporate their entire bodies.
However, it's not a perfect system. Lag is evident between one's movements and what is seen on screen. For example, if I waved quickly enough I was able to make my avatar's arm appear to be moving opposite my own rather than in sync with it. This sort of delay can be a little frustrating when, say, you're trying to return a ping pong ball in Kinect Sports (the game actually instructs players to swing early) or stay in rhythm in Your Shape: Fitness Evolved (I found I needed to ignore my lagging avatar and focus on the virtual trainer's movements). Perhaps tellingly, most of the games I've tried don't seem to require the sort of pinpoint timing that would make this kind of lag a major issue, and those that did - like the driving game Kinect Joy Ride - were the least fun.
Outside of games, another of Kinect's uses is as an interface for the Xbox 360 dashboard. I quickly swished through series of menus by moving my hand to the side of the screen and swiping sideways, then made selections by hovering my hand in place over a desired item for a couple of seconds. It recalls the way Tom Cruise interacts with his computer in Minority Report. It's not exactly the same, but it certainly shares the same futuristic vibe.
Alternatively, you can simply tell your system what to do through voice commands. I found this to be extremely handy while watching movies and television shows downloaded via the Zune marketplace. Phrases like "Xbox pause," "Xbox play," "Xbox rewind," "Xbox fast forward," and "Xbox info" gave me instant and complete control over video playback. It certainly beat searching through a pile of remotes on my coffee table whenever the phone rang. And it's worth adding that Kinect had no trouble picking up different voices - my daughter was able to control it just as easily as I.
I just wish verbal control was used more thoroughly. Not all menu items respond to voice commands, and some activities - such as watching a DVD - don't seem to support it. Still, that's not a criticism of the technology; it just needs wider implementation.
There is little doubt that Kinect is the most significant innovation in console and video game interfaces since the Wii's remote and nunchuk. It works better than you might think, and there's nothing else like it on the market.
And while its $150 price tag may seem steep, keep in mind that it comes with a pretty decent game in the box, and that - unlike Nintendo and PlayStation's motion control systems which require one or more controllers for each player - you only ever need purchase one Kinect sensor.
The lag I experienced makes me doubt whether Kinect can be satisfyingly implemented in what one might call a "traditional" game for so-called hardcore players (like an intense military shooter), but it opens a portal into the world of casual and family gaming that Microsoft's console has sorely lacked up until now. Whether the Wii, with more than 75 million units shipped, has already saturated this market is something Microsoft will discover in the coming months.
However, from both a technical and entertainment perspective, Kinect is a good and innovative product. Assuming you and your fellow family members don't mind acting in a manner similar to that of the goofy man in the attached video, you'll have a lot of fun.