I’ve had a couple days to play with my new Kinect sensor, and I’ve had time to form some impressions. I’ve arranged the discussion of Kinect’s features roughly from most to least cool.
Although the gesture controls get most of the attention, voice recognition is the unsung hero of the Kinect system. It provides an extremely natural and comfortable way of controlling the system. From the Kinect hub, say “Xbox ESPN,” and you’re looking at the ESPN main screen. ”Next” and “Previous” cycle through the menu items, and “Play” starts the currently selected one. While an item is playing you can issue commands like “Pause,” “Fast Forward,” and “Rewind.” Saying “Kinect Hub” always takes you back to the main menu (though I’m sure the Star Trek fans among us would have preferred them to use “End Program”).
The voice recognition seems to be robust. I didn’t see any glitching or misinterpreted commands, even while the furnace and dryer were running at the other end of the basement. A conversational tone generally sufficed; I didn’t have to shout to make myself understood.
My only real complaint is that not every command you might want is actually supported in the voice system. There is no console shutdown command, for example, and within each application it’s up to the app’s developers to decide what to support. For example, a lot of the features in last.fm are not accessible with voice commands, requiring you to switch to gestures or pick up the controller to activate them. The most egregious offender in this respect is Kinect Adventures, the game that comes with the system. Voice commands are not supported at all within the game, and there is no way to get back to the Hub at all without picking up the controller.
Kinect can replace the headset for voice chat, and it adds a video chat capability. Supposedly, you can chat with either Xbox Live friends or with Windows Messenger contacts. In practice, I’ve never been able to sign into my MS Live account through the Xbox, but my tests with Xbox Live friends worked well. When I sat on the couch and spoke in a conversational tone the people on the other end reported that they were able to understand me just fine. Sound from the other end came out through the TV speakers, but nobody reported any echo. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try the video chat because it requires that both parties have a Kinect installed. This seems like an unfortunate limitation. You should be able to send video if you like, even if the other side doesn’t have the ability to send any back.
Curiously, even though the voice chat works well at a conversational volume, I found that for voice recording I had to project, almost to the point of shouting, to make myself heard. I don’t send a lot of voice messages, so this isn’t a huge deal for me, but it’s a puzzling discrepancy.
For the most part, gesture commands work by pointing at menu items on the screen. Kinect recognizes only coarse gestures like arm and torso movements, not fine gestures like hand and finger position. So, to select a menu item you have to hover over the item until it activates. You switch between menu pages by pointing at a “next page” icon and making a swipe gesture. It works reasonably well, although navigating through a menu hierarchy is a little clunky, since each menu selection takes a couple of seconds.
Some games and applications have taken a different tack toward gesture commands, in which commands use poses (similar to flag semaphores) to activate them. It’s an intriguing idea, since it allows commonly used commands to be accessible from anywhere, without going through menus. On the other hand, like menu commands, semaphores take a couple of seconds to activate, making them inappropriate, for example, for pausing a game when something urgent demands your attention (as happened to me during a game of Kinect Adventures this weekend). Furthermore, it seems like mapping a bunch of semaphores to random commands, no doubt with different conventions for each development studio, would be a recipe for confusion. Thus, semaphore commands are an intriguing idea, but voice commands would probably accomplish the same thing with less hassle.
The first thing to keep in mind about Kinect games is that they take space. Lots and lots of space. You need to be at least six feet from the sensor, and you’ll need a couple more feet behind you. If you want to play with two people simultaneously, add another couple of feet so that you both can be in frame at once. If your living room is set up like the ones in the video game commercials, vast empty spaces with one or two pieces of ultra-modern furniture around the periphery, then you should be all set. Otherwise, you’ll have some rearranging to do before and after each game.
The only Kinect game I’ve had the opportunity to try is the one that comes with the unit, Kinect Adventures. Kinect Adventures is a collection of Kinect-enabled minigames. It seems mostly geared toward demonstrating the device’s capabilities, but a few of the games are fun in their own right. For example, there is a breakout-like game, in which you must break blocks at the end of a lane using a volleyball. Each time the ball rebounds you must block it with some part of your body—hands, feet, head, even torso will do. I didn’t experience any of the problems I’d read about online; the motion control was lively, responsive, and easy to get the hang of.
Make no mistake; Kinect is very much an early-adopter purchase for now. The good news is that the technology performs well. And, it’s cool at that. Having a Kinect is like having a little piece of the future in your living room. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear what you can do with this kind of future-tech.
Ultimately, Kinect’s fortunes are going to be determined by whether or not game designers can think of something to do with the motion controls that actually adds something to the gameplay. Revolutionary controls do not necessarily make for revolutionary games, as Nintendo is in the process of learning with Wii Motion Plus. Kinect Adventures, perhaps predictably, fails in this respect. It comes across as gimmicky, something that you would only play to see what the controller can do. The waves of dance and fitness games making their way to market will probably do a little better. Those types of games have always been a little limited by what the game console can actually measure. The sports games will likely be hit-and-miss, depending on how well the sports in question lend themselves to pantomime. For now, however, I don’t really see any Kinect games I’m dying to play. Here’s hoping that changes soon.