Engage: Microsoft Launches Kinect

By: James Oppenheim | Created: 2012-05-20 02:06:28 | (Updated: 0000-00-00 00:00:00)
Picard brings his hand to his face, then sharply points it toward the viewscreen: "Engage!" We know how the future is supposed to look. Computers should heed our gesture and respond to our voice. We don't have to hold laptops or remotes or nunchucks; they adapt to us, not the other way around. Welcome Microsoft Kinect, and welcome to the future. It starts today.

Microsoft's Kinect is not just a mii-too version of Nintendo's gaming system. Whether it is a commercial success or not, Kinect captures the sci-fiction dreams of our youth and puts the future into our living rooms. It isn't an evolution of "motion-based" gaming: it represents a hitherto unattainable synergy between human and computer, and most of the time it works so effortlessly that after you've been using it for just a few minutes it virtually disappears seamlessly into the "way you game".

Here is a gadget, a peripheral, that simply plugs in and works. There are no buttons to learn, no drivers to figure out. In my test rooms it didn't even require me to move any lights or furniture (except the coffee table - it does want 6-8' of room for you to play in). Kinect isn't a "first generation" product; it is strictly next-gen. Kinect is a sensor that plugs into the back of your Xbox 360. (It will work with both the original models (with a power plug) or the new one (without). It is a wired device which will be a problem for certain installations. The motorized sensor identifies you and your movement using a combination of microphones, cameras and lasers.

For a new "platform" Kinect feels remarkably "finished". After you plug it in, the system walks you through a series of simple steps to get everything calibrated. The biggest issue we found was getting a big enough play space in our city apartment. Although lighting can be a factor, it wasn't a significant issue in our tests.

The intuitive user interface is a marvel of natural design. Talk, and the system listens. Wave at the screen and it knows you want to control it by motion. Consistancy is also emphasized. For example, need to pause? In nearly every game or activity all we had to do was lift our left arm to a 45-degree angle.

The device is even smart enough to recognize you and sign you into Xbox Live.

Control seemed much more responsive and stable in the final product supplied to us by Microsoft, than in previous pre-release versions of the controller we tested, and with little or no lag. My one quibble is with the amount of time needed to "confirm" an action: You have to hold your hand over the on screen "button" long enough for it to activate. In most programs (and in the user interface) it seemed to take too long and not be adjustable. New users may need the added time, but the length of time should be something that (like Window's double click) an end user can change. However, the implementation of the controls does vary from game to game we tested. Some were very responsive: hold up your hand and the program instantly recognized and responded to your control. Others were less precise or less good at giving visual cues, resulting in awkward times when you might be waving your arms about while seeming to be ignored by the units unblinking red eye.

Kinect is largely integrated into the day-to-day Xbox 360 experience. That is to say, Kinect enabled games and much of the media centric things you're likely to do are controllable by waiving your arms or talking to the system. Other sections, like setup, are not yet Kinect-able, a pity, because it would be wonderful to be able to dictate IP addresses rather than enter them manually.

Movies (even Netflix), photos, and music, can all be controlled with Kinect without picking up a remote control.

The device even operates beautifully for video chats. It can even follow you about the room to a certain degree using its motorized head.

Precision of control is still, even after testing all the launch titles, still a bit of an unknown. All of us who had extensive time with the unit have been floored by the uncanny ability of Kinect to tell what we're doing, whether dancing, rafting, exercising or boxing. Recognition of arm and hand control seems to be somewhere between that of the original Wii and the Wii Plus. On the other hand, the Kinect is also always looking at the rest of your body as well.

However, the controller was less precise the "finer" the movement it was asked to interpret. It is a good thing that cars have steering wheels, and not Kinects, for instance - otherwise we'd all die in horrible accidents. My guess is that specialized controllers will ultimately be added to the system for activities that are best not left to miming, like steering a car.

It appeared to me that different programs "perceived" movement better (more precisely) than others, suggesting that in some games the control is "dumbed down" for a more casual audience. Let's just say you're not going to learn how to play Table Tennis from the Sports title.

One thing is for sure: Using Kinect will give you a physical workout. Nearly every launch title requires you to stand up while playing. The exercise program is particularly insistant on making you lunge and squat deep enough to receive credit. The adventure game will give you a good cardiovascular session, as will the dedicated exercise program and the dance program as well.

My only major concern about the Kinect is really whether Microsoft will stick with the platform. I hope the infamous Kin phone and Kinect share nothing more than the first three letters of their respective names. The failed phone is not the only product Microsoft has launched with great fanfare, only to completely abandon. Remember the great speakers Microsoft created? How about the Sidewinder peripherals? Ultimate TV? Encarta? It doesn't seem to matter that they dominate a market space; if it isn't profitable enough, Microsoft cuts and runs. No one wants to stock up on Kinect games this year to find that the platform is killed off next year. Is Kinect a real part of the Xbox platform or primarily intended as a Nintendo killer? Only time will tell.

Conclusion

If you're looking for a motion-based console with hard-core shoot'em up action (and you have to have it this year), the PS3 is the only real game in town. It offers precision, top-quality graphics, and a very potent gaming/entertainment system. You won't be put off by the large number of buttons - in fact, you'll probably get off on the challenge they present.

If you are a Mario/Zelda fan. Also a no-brainer. You already own a Wii.

For just about everyone else, though, the Kinect motion experience is the "must-have" gaming product of 2010.

 
 
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Manufacturer:
Microsoft