Review: Kinect

Kinect is here and the Xbox 360 will never be the same.

Developer: Microsoft
Publisher: Microsoft
Platforms: Xbox 360

Nintendo opened the motion gaming Pandora’s Box with the Wii, bringing gaming to the masses and, in the process, cementing itself as top dog this generation. Never one to be left out of oodles of money, Sony and Microsoft have decided to dive into the motion gaming pool and try not only to expand their audiences, but also extend the life span of their HD consoles. We’ve already had a hands-on with Sony’s take on motion gaming, and now it’s Microsoft’s turn with Kinect.

The hype for Kinect has been astronomical, with Microsoft investing literally hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising. Kinect is everywhere! Oprah, Ellen, The TODAY Show, CBS Nightly News – Microsoft has been pimping Kinect any chance it gets; all in the hopes of Kinect being the new Wii. So, is this the first step to the “Minority Report” future that Microsoft promised?

Maybe.

Setting up Kinect is a breeze! Remember, Microsoft is aiming this thing first and foremost at the casual market. We can’t have grandma having a hard time setting up this fancy new magic machine she just received for Christmas, and Microsoft knows it. Setting up the Kinect unit is idiot proof, as any device that’s looking to become mass market needs to be.

Kinect comes with its own specially designed connection for those that own the new Xbox 360 Slim. If you own a Slim, this thing is plug and play. If you happen to have an older model 360, don’t worry, Microsoft has you covered as well. You’ll connect Kinect via a standard USB port on the back of your 360 along with a separate power supply to fuel the Kinect sensor bar itself. Once hooked up, your 360 will detect that the sensor is hooked up on a reboot and walk you through a colorful guide on calibrating your Kinect sensor.

Now I’ll be honest, I don’t have the largest play space in the world. This worried me greatly: was this thing going to work with my small bedroom? Amazingly enough it does and well too!

As you can see, this is the amount of space I was working with. It is by no means the suggested 6-8 ft of play space that Microsoft has deemed necissary for Kinect to work. Granted, if you’re thinking of playing Kinect Sports or Kinect Adventures with a friend or family member, the extra space is a must. Even with my teeny tiny amount of space, I was surprisingly able to play a game of River Rush on Kinect with a friend. It was a tight squeeze and we did bump the hell out of each other, but it did work. 

For those worried that Kinect needs a room to be as blisteringly bright as the sun to work, don’t worry. Kinect works in low-light conditions just fine.

Some of the key features for Kinect are:

Facial identification

Voice recognition

Skeletal tracking

3D depth sensing

Motor control system

Video and voice communication over Live and MSN Messenger

We’ll start off with Kinect’s facial identification, which offers the ability for multiple gamers to easily sign in and use their own avatar whenever engaging with the sensor. Kinect makes this an easy process by allowing you to setup a Kinect ID for every player in the house. Once you activate the Kinect dashboard by waving your hand, it will try and detect the player and quickly sign them in via a stored database of facial features. The setup process for Kinect ID is also incredibly simple. Hover your hand over the Kinect ID icon in the Kinect hub and you’ll be walked through a process that will create a unique ID just for you. You’ll have to hold a few poses and step around the room on a 3D grid, but after around 5 minutes your ID is complete.

After this process anytime you activate Kinect it will automatically log you in detecting your face and your Gamertag. The general idea is for Kinect ID to allow party games like Joy Ride and Kinect Sports to be really easy to just jump in and play. I could be playing Kinect Adventures and have a friend who wants to just join in, Kinect will detect them once in the sensors view and if they have an ID on my console will be signed in automatically and placed in the game seamlessly. It’s smart software like this that really sets Kinect apart from Move or even the Wii.

Once you’ve set up your Kinect ID, you’ll then be able to mess around within the Kinect Hub. This where anything Kinect related will take place on the 360. Think of it like a dashboard just for Kinect users. It’s here where you’ll be able to control all of your media with your hand movements and voice.

The Kinect hub isn’t quite as full featured as the traditional dashboard, but considering that Microsoft wants to keep Kinect as simple as possible, it all makes sense. You’ll have access to achievements, Video Kinect, Last FM, ESPN as well as the usual apps on the regular dash. Again, everything is controlled via voice and/or motion controls. I was hesitant about how well either of these would work, honestly, and this years’ E3 sure as hell didn’t set my fears aside. I thought Kinect looked like a hot, laggy mess.

Gaming sites were filled with reports of serious lag and voice control issues. I myself laughed heartily at them all and thought, “surely this thing is gonna flop hard as hell”. Well, I can proudly say that for the most part Kinect works as advertised.

The 3D depth camera inside the sensor is a pretty damn amazing little piece of tech. It’s been able to tell the difference between me and a dresser about 2ft behind with no problem at all. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t have the largest area to use Kinect but the sensor had no problem detecting me and my relation of distance from objects around me and where I was. It was when this revelation struck me in the face that I was really blown away with the software and hardware that Microsoft is using.

Now don’t think it’s all unicorns and rainbows. Kinect has already decided a few times to wig out a bit, a little of the now legendary BAM! But 9 times out of 10 its been able to accurately detect all of my movements and with little to no noticeable lag on screen. I have yet to spend enough time with Kinect Adventures to fully appreciate it, but in the brief time I have, Kinect has managed to keep up surprisingly well with all of my movements. I’ll have a further Kinect Adventures review after a little more time with the launch title but so far – I’m impressed. 

One of the biggest draws to Kinect for me was the ability to control my media using my hand and my voice. As a tech geek and fan of Star Trek (Hello Computer!) I was more than a little excited to try it out.

Kinect’s voice recognition works better than I ever could have expected. Now, it’s not at the awesome Star Trek level yet, only allowing for a dozen or so pre-programmed commands, but they all work and work well. Even if you have your surround sound system up, the noise canceling mic array under the Kinect managed to hear all of my commands and respond quickly. This is without a doubt, for me, the coolest feature of Kinect. I’m a big fan of anything futuristic and talking to my console made me feel as if Kinect really was this futuristic device!

Voice commands work all throughout the Kinect hub, so one could easily launch Zune, ESPN or even Last FM all with the power of your voice. Considering how past voice recognition programs have been flaky at best, it’s all the more impressive that Kinect works as advertised. Sadly, Kinect doesn’t work with your own personal media, which would have been really useful. Microsoft has enabled voice recognition all through the system allowing me to stop, pause, and play different movies and forms of music through Zune and Last FM, but its locked me out of using it to control any media on my HDD or even start my DVD player. 

Hopefully sometime in the future, Microsoft will enable these options for Kinect users. Personally, I don’t see why not. The omission of such a feature is pretty glaring considering how carefully designed Kinect is with every other part of the dash.

As a sidenote - Netflix has yet to be upgraded to work with Kinect, but I’ve been assured that an upgraded app for Kinect is well in the works. 

The last new addition to Live and the Kinect hub is Video Kinect. A new app, which allows Xbox 360 users to video chat with friends and family via Live or MSN Messenger. I have yet to try it out with any Live user but managed to make a video call to a friend on MSN without a hitch. Due to the motor system within the Kinect sensor, the sensor would zoom in, zoom out and follow me around the room as I chatted away with my friend. We were both blown away at the audio quality of the call. The video quality not so much. Kinect is rather limited with only a 640 x 480 RGB camera when it comes to video chat and taking action stills within games like Kinect Sports. Due to a rather pitiful resolution, you can expect at best webcam quality video while video chatting. And just like the webcams of old, it needs tons of light.

Microsoft really dropped the ball on the video part of Kinect. When we have cameras in mobile phones today that can clearly capture and stream HD video, it’s a real letdown that Kinect is using such a cheap RGB solution. My guess is due to all of the technology inside the sensor itself that some cuts had to be made somewhere for financial reasons. Still, with Microsoft touting Kinect as a breakthough in tech; featuring some impressive motion capture and voice recognition technology, it’s a damn shame they didn’t go all the way with the RGB camera. A sensor that could have streamed in 720p would have been a huge boon for Kinect!

Ultimately you’re no doubt asking yourself, “So is this thing really worth it, is this the gaming and media revolution that Microsoft sold at E3”?”

As much as I hate to say it, with Kinect you’re betting on the future. Similar to what Sony did with the choice of having a Blu-ray drive in every PS3, Microsoft’s bet is on natural interfaces to become the next big breakthrough in not just gaming but media as a whole. Personally, the launch line-up of Kinect titles really don’t do much for me. Than again, I’m not the market that Microsoft is aiming at for the moment.

Core gamers will get their titles soon enough, with Microsoft’s TGS announcements of a new Steel Battalion, a Kinect title from Suda51 and Project Draco from the guys behind the cult classic Panzer Dragoon series - Kinect’s hardcore motion future looks bright.

The tech inside the Kinect sensor is incredibly solid and in some ways revolutionary; and that’s not just me blowing smoke up your ass. Microsoft has created a piece of technology that can not only enhance gameplay like never before, but also makes it as accessible as it will ever really get.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s also taken the first steps into integrating a natural user interface into our every day lives in ways that Sci-fi movies have been promising for years. 

Still, like many gamers, I don’t want to always be standing around playing my games (although it does work sitting). It’s the promise of hybrid Kinect and controller based games that excite me. A point of view that Gears of War 3 designer Cliff Blezinski shares:

I think a hybrid game would be very cool. You think of Mario Galaxy and Zelda, they’re hybrids that do this, and they’re outstanding. Doing a hardcore game that mixes it with voice and motion controls could be very cool,” - Blezinski

The possibilities with Kinect and a traditional controller in the hands or lack thereof of some of the worlds greatest game designers is what really sells me on Kinect, and odds are it’s the main draw for any hardcore gamer. Right now Microsoft is trying to expand its base - we all know this. Nintendo hit a home-run with the Wii and Sony and Microsoft see that there’s plenty of casual gamer money out there; and there looking to get moms, dads and grandparents hooked on Kinect with casual Wii like games. 

If anything I’m more worried about where Microsoft is going with traditional controller based games (as in where the hell are the core games?), but that’s for another time. 

Can you imagine a shooter like Bulletstorm using voice recognition and the tried and true 360 controller? I sure as hell can and it sounds awesome!


In the end, I have to give kudos to Microsoft. They actually pulled it off! As crazy and hair brained as the idea of Kinect was when it was first revealed, Microsoft has delivered on at least 80% of the promise we saw at E3 two years ago. No, we can’t scan skateboards into the system or change avatar clothes with friends in Norway, or hell even jack into the Matrix. But what Kinect does do is pull off an amazingly accurate job of capturing the human body. Yes, from time to time you will get a slight avatar wig out or need to recalibrate but overall Kinect works. 

Voice recognition, facial ID and 3D depth all work, just like Microsoft promised… well almost. But with a product as ambitious as Kinect, almost is pretty damn amazing. And like Xbox 360 itself which has evolved over time, Kinect’s software will grow just the same. As I said, you’re banking on potential with Kinect, and with Microsoft’s massive support for the wonder sensor - the future of motion gaming on the Xbox 360 is only limited by the power of the game designers behind it. 

 By: Michael Torres

  1. galaxynextdoor posted this
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