Face-to-Face with Kinect

by CyberKnight

Kinect is less than four months away. Since I happen to live within reach of one of the “nationwide” Microsoft stores, I was finally able to test drive one for myself recently. Instead of watching canned demos or carefully filtered press releases, or relying on the third party accounts and having to filter through their biases, I am finally able to give my own account and form my own opinion.

I walked in to the Microsoft Store and was greeted by an employee who pointed out some highlights. One of these was the Mitsubishi 3D DLP TV near the front of the store, showing a demo video driven by a Toshiba laptop. She said that the Xbox 360 connected to it could also drive a 3D picture. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a game available to show off this technology, but it got me wondering: Why haven’t we heard this hyped up from Microsoft? Just a few years ago, Sony bragged about the PS3 and how it was 1080p-ready, and how it was the only console that could do that; and then Microsoft sucked all the wind out of that announcement with a simple “we can do that, too” and flashed a system update that instantly made all Xbox 360s 1080p-capable. This year, Sony pushed 3D hard at E3; if the Xbox is already 3D-capable, why are they letting Sony get all the credit? Even if it’s “not important” now (the Best Buy near me still only carries exactly one model of 3D TV in its store), it’s still leaving the impression that the PS3 is more “future-ready” than the 360.

But that was a distraction. The real purpose for my visit was at the back of the store, hooked up to an ultra-large rear projection display. I was able to get up close to the Kinect device and get a good look at it. It looks almost exactly like its pictures, styled to match the new Xbox 360 “slim” model. The only thing I found interesting or different was, it appeared a little smaller in person than it does in is promotional shots. The thing didn’t look like it should cost $150.

A Microsoftie came to give me my own personal tour of Kinect Adventures, the game we now know will be bundled with the device. Since the game was in demo mode, it automatically started up with the rafting game. (If you’ve seen the E3 videos, you’ve seen all there is to Kinect Adventures, at least as far at this demo is concerned.) My jump timing was not as refined as hers, and I would end up jumping much later than the game expected. The game had the pictures to prove it: the still photos that the game took during play showed her in the air when I was still preparing to jump.

Next up, some older teenage girls had wandered back, and I played the next game with one of them: the handcar racing game. This involved a lot of jumping, ducking, and side-stepping to avoid obstacles the handcar passes by. Again, my timing seemed to be a bit off, as my jumps seemed to not quite clear the blocks when they came by.

I felt like a fool. And the game had the pictures to prove it.

When I stepped aside to let the rest of the girls have their turns, I felt winded. Yeah, I’m old, fat, and out of shape. But two little minigames put me out of breath. It confirmed what I feared about the games in particular and the Kinect interface in general: it does not lend itself to extended periods of use. And that’s not through any limitation of the technology, but of the body trying to use it. It’s just simply inherit in the nature of the interface.

But did I at least have fun for the five minutes of game time that I had? Eh, marginally. I might’ve had more fun if I was playing with or against someone I knew instead of a complete stranger, not feeling completely self-conscious about trying to get my body to react in a virtual world. But it definitely wasn’t a game I would seek out and play.

Yes, Microsoft has made it fairly clear these games are not made for the “hard-core gamer”. It’s all part of their new strategy to reach out to the casual gamer, a strategy that includes moves such as canceling the online game show 1 vs. 100. No, wait, that doesn’t fit. It must be part of their move to win over the Wii crowd, which is why it’s competitively priced. No, wait, it’s not – the cheapest you’ll be able to buy Kinect, if you don’t already have a 360, is for $300; why wouldn’t you pick up a Wii instead, which is $100 less retail and already has an established library of games to choose from? If you do have a 360 already, the $150 price tag is cheaper, but not by a ton; and there’s still the question of game support.

I have a Live Vision camera. The number of games I have that support it, I can count on my fingers. The number of games that actually tried to do something innovative with it (other than just throw in generic video chat support), total, is likewise minuscule. So, I can’t say I’m too hopeful that it’ll be better this time around. Hardware peripherals have a long history of non-support (Live Vision, Wireless Racing Wheel, PlayStation Eye Toy, PS2 Hard Drive, GameCube modem, Sega Genesis 32x); and with Kinect’s odd target demographic (the casual gamer in a household that already owns a 360), it seems poised to follow in that long history.

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