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The Technical University of Denmark's usability expert, Dr. Jakob Nielsen, 14 March, 2002.


Dr. Jakob Nielsen, a renowned web usability expert at the Technical University of Denmark, recently posted a thorough and edifying analysis on the usability of Microsoft's Kinect platform on his blog, Alertbox. His discussion puts some of the innovative interface's shortcomings-which many of us have experienced but might not be able to easily define or describe-into plain words.

For example, Dr. Neilsen notes the lack of consistency between Kinect titles in performing common tasks. He applauds the "pause" motion-left hand held out at a 45 degree angle-which is universal among Kinect games, but laments how other common tasks-such as jumping back to previous menus-often require the use of different hands and varying gestures.

"Less learning takes place when the same thing is done differently in different games," he explains.

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Similarly, while he thinks the confirmation gesture required for certain inputs to avoid accidentally triggering unwanted events-such as holding your hand in one spot for a couple of seconds to register a menu selection-are generally helpful and may even save time, he notes that these gestures tend to be inconsistent across games. He goes on to call out examples of how they differ in several of the platform's most popular titles.

Another issue software developers have to contend with, he says, is providing real-time instructions to players via clearly evident but non-disruptive means. His research led him to believe that players are so involved watching their avatars and the action in a game like Kinect Adventures that they don't pay attention to cues presented in the corner of the screen instructing them to change position in the play area.

I've actually seen this very phenomenon happen with my friends and family, and it has led to frustration when they eventually migrate outside of the camera's field of vision.

But he's not a Kinect naysayer. Indeed, he states up front that people-particularly casual players-find the controller-less platform to be a lot of fun, and that Microsoft's engineers clearly understand the fundamentals of usability. Specifically, he calls out how "buttons feel magnetic and attract the cursor whenever your hand moves close," and "the way Kinect automatically signs in users after recognizing their faces," thus eliminating an entire series of interface steps.

However, his underlying concern seems to be how Kinect's technology might be employed in the world of business, and he doesn't seem overly optimistic in this regard. He concludes that "Kinect is an exciting advance in user interface technology, but many of the user experience characteristics that make it so also mean that it's not the road ahead for the practical user interfaces that businesses, government agencies, and non-profit organizations need for their everyday websites, intranets, and applications."

He might be approaching Kinect from a different perspective than that of your average gamer, but I still think his analysis ought to carry weight with both players and the game design community. At the very least, his implied call for a broader set of interface standards for the platform-something that could only be developed and enforced by Microsoft-seems like a good idea. Indeed, it will be interesting to see if such standards get baked into the next Xbox, which one assumes will largely be built around Kinect technology.

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