It doesn’t take long before the most controversial part of the entire product – the Kinect sensor – comes into play. The peripheral is contentious for a few reasons. For one, it’s a mandatory purchase, and boosts the overall cost of the console up to $499, or $100 more than Sony’s rival PlayStation 4.
While the original Kinect broke the Guinness World Record for fastest-selling gaming peripheral upon its release in 2010, it was shunned almost as quickly by game developers and core players thanks to its wonky motion control and inaccurate voice commands. Microsoft promised that the Xbox One version would indeed be new and improved, but many gamers will resent being force fed the bundled camera bar.
The new Kinect is intended to be more of a control vehicle for the console itself than a gaming attachment, with voice commands being front and centre at launch. The good news is they work exceptionally well. You can tell the Xbox to switch between apps and games, perform Bing searches for movies and music to buy (or that are already in your library), record a clip of your gameplay and upload those clips to social networks, among many other actions.
The key to gauging the efficacy of any alternative input method is its success ratio: it needs to work often enough so that the user doesn’t get frustrated and return to the more reliable standard input, which in this case is the hand-held controller.
The new Kinect amply satisfies this ratio; Over the course of a few days of testing, I found my natural resistance to voice commands ebbing. It’s surprisingly accurate for navigating around the console’s interface, perhaps not to the point where it can be used in mission-critical game situations, but you’ll experience only the occasional glitch. It’s simply easier and more comfortable to lie back on the sofa and talk to the Xbox, instead of sitting forward, controller in hand.
But here’s the part that makes me nervous: Telling the console to turn itself on. It inevitably complies, which means it’s always listening. Microsoft vows that passive or active data gathered by Kinect, whether voice or visual, will never be uploaded to its servers. Perhaps, but there’s always the possibility – or even likelihood – that the device will get hacked, its data somehow stolen or abused.
The paranoiac solution is to simply unplug the sensor. But if that’s the answer, why spend the extra $100 in the first place? Kinect may be destined to walk that fine line between convenience and controversy.
It’s worth noting that Canadians are missing out on what is supposed to be Kinect’s killer voice app: verbal command of television navigation. U.S. users can pipe their cable or satellite signal directly into the console through its HDMI input port, then change channels with voice commands. Canadians can still have the same connection and tell the Xbox to switch to TV and back, but they can’t flip channels. Microsoft Canada executives say they’re working on it, but there’s no time frame for adding the feature just yet.
Regardless, the Kinect does still bring the “gee-whiz” since its facial recognition software is also greatly improved. It’s a novelty at this point, but having a welcome message pop up on screen whenever a registered user walks into the room is pretty neat, and it’s a faster way to log in. The ability to scan one’s full facial image into a game – coming next year, Microsoft says – also opens up some exciting possibilities.
What Kinect’s supposedly new and improved gesture recognition can really do as a gaming device is still largely an open question. A sliver of the upcoming Kinect Sports Rivals – a jet ski race – is available as a free download, while the launch title Xbox Fitness tracks movements in time to workout videos. Both work accurately, but neither feature very fine-grained gesture recognition.
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