Microsoft’s Kinect Review

Microsoft really, really likes to introduce new technology. The former Project Natal is finally here and with the arrival of motion-based control and the voice activated navigation features Xbox 360 owners everywhere will be asking the big question… Is this a big deal? Is Kinect really from the future, or just a clone of Nintendo’s successful casual-friendly Wii?

First off, the Kinect is not Microsoft’s answer to the wiggle and waggle Wii controllers. The new functions of the camera make you the controller, just as the marketing materials claim. Players manipulate the Xbox 360′s new Kinect Hub by waving hands, moving and speaking clearly to the unit, which is pretty cool.

The technology has great potential to change the way people use their Xbox 360. It also opens up some gameplay types that were previously unavailable to traditional controllers. The Kinect knows how to track the human body. It senses your joint movement and recognizes the hands and hips very well. Shades of Minority Report’s futuristic swipe interface are present in the way the peripheral reads and interacts with the player. But the technology, for now at least, feels a bit less futuristic and more “beta testing.”

Microsoft claims that the Kinect is in effect a new console for Xbox users. The company wants 360 owners to adopt the new technology, and it makes good strides in integrating the peripheral in ways it has failed to do in the past for add-on hardware, like the Xbox camera.

Actually, the launch of Kinect in many ways parallels the cycle of a new console release. The hardware in a new console is underutilized and poorly understood by game and interface developers at launch. There are a number of titles that show off the potential, but overall fail to deliver the promise of the new device. Plus, living rooms need to adapt to the presence of the new system.

Kinect hits all these points exactly. The new unit does in fact work to control and track users for the Xbox 360, but Microsoft held back from fully integrating the controls in the latest dashboard update. By requiring users to switch over to the “Kinect Hub” to use the hand controls for a very limited number of applications, MS is forcing gamers to keep that controller or remote close at hand. Of special note is the lack of support for the updated Netflix application, which seemed custom designed for Kinect control.

The bundled Kinect Adventures game is a good example of a launch title – anemic but focused on showing off the new tech of the Kinect sensor – it offers a nice diversion and is likely to get players comfortable with the new interface of body control but it is unlikely to be a staple game six months down the line when developers better understand the best ways to use Kinect’s unique features.

Players expecting to add the Kinect also need to recognize the environmental requirements of the unit. The Kinect camera is about the size of the Wii sensor bar but it is not as flexible. While it can be set below or above the TV in testing I found the Kinect worked best when mounted above my TV and when placed at about head height. Unfortunately most slim LED LCD TVs don’t have real estate to set a sensor on like their classic tube TV predecessors.

The Kinect expects players to be seated or playing within a four by six foot rectangle in front of the unit. There is a maximum distance at which the camera works well, and most of the launch games assume this zone of emptiness to support play, especially games like Dance Central and Your Shape Fitness Evolved. Living rooms and bedrooms are common spaces where people play Xbox games, and before you buy this tech you need to think about if it will even fit your layout and lifestyle. I hope your spouse isn’t too attached to that coffee table, or you like sliding it out of the way whenever you use the Kinect, because that is what the camera requires you to do.

When seated, the Kinect had no problem detecting my hands and addressing my sweeps and waves to control the hub. The lack of buttons and limited hand gestures used at this point however make the Kinect very limited right now. Standing I noticed some oddities in seemingly inconsistent situations. Sometimes the camera would track my movement well, but other times my on-screen avatar seemed to spasm or twitch in odd ways and the console ignored my hand movements, forcing me to repeat them. This twitching didn’t happen incredibly often in the menus, but I experienced it when playing Kinect Adventures, Dance Central and Your Shape.

The bottom line is that Kinect is a technology with a lot of potential. One day it could truly revolutionize how we interact with our game systems, TVs, stereos or whatever devices recognized its input, but right now it feels like new technology searching for a killer application. Microsoft is working hard to get the peripheral into homes.

I can’t imagine it becoming the focus of my 360. Right now, it is just easier to use a remote or controller since the Kinect has so many limitations. Unless I’m planning to play a Kinect-centric game, I’m unlikely to switch over to the Kinect Hub or use the incomplete voice controls. Those interested in the potential of the device should really wait a few months until the developers, and Microsoft, figure out how best to utilize this new and impressive tech.

Pros

  • Interesting potential for future use
  • When enabled, motion controls are simple to use for Xbox navigation

Cons

  • No killer app
  • Incomplete control integration with dashboard and Xbox applications like Facebook and Netflix
  • Odd tracking errors from time to time
  • Requires dedicated open play space

The Verdict: 60/100

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