There's no denying that Nintendo took Microsoft by surprise when its comparatively wimpy little Wii became a runaway hit with general consumers, not just gamers. Wii's simple and somewhat sloppy motion-sensitive controllers were key to its success.
After some presumed head scratching, Microsoft set about the none-too-small task of one-upping the competition. Taking the controller out of motion-controlled gaming altogether, the Xbox people delivered last week a true evolution of interactive entertainment, one where the player's body waves and flails and prances about - and sometimes speaks - to invoke on-screen actions of the playable character on screen. Awesome idea there, Microsoft.
Wee problem: Kinect is sloppy - just like Wii. So while it's still an evolution, it's a lateral mutation rather than an advance for the species. Further to that analogy, Darwin might suggest it will only keep on living and maybe even thrive if its unique new features don't prove a detriment in the eat or be eaten ecology of videogames.
The good news: It'll probably thrive. Someday.
As of today, Kinect comes off as rushed.
In and of itself, Kinect is a remarkable chunk of technology, a forward-facing, articulating camera and microphone array that's like nothing else out there. Within its elegant, foot-long sub sized housing (a slim, calorie-wise sandwich at that) resides more electronic components than a James Bond wristwatch. We're talking two auto-focusing cameras and an infra-red projector so the thing can "see" in light spectrums beyond mere mortals, scoping out the room size and then monitoring bodies, hands, arms and legs in 3 dimensions of motion therein. Also in there are four microphones for voice recognition with noise filtering and positional awareness, plus a double stack of circuit boards apparently born of black magic and cinnamon. It sits atop a motorized stand so the thing can self-adjust its view of the world and even look around a bit.
Jacking Kinect into an Xbox 360 - game console sold separately or as a bundle - is straightforward enough with a conjoined power plug and USB cable connecting AC power with the console and the Kinect sensor in two steps.
All plugged in and fire up, Hal 9000 it is not. Bummer.
Here's the thing: most of the Kinect marketing material out there - the TV commercials, the magazine ads, etc. - invariably show a couple or a family of four engaging with Kinect. There's mom and dad and/or their teen and their 'tween bopping around a spacious living room. HDTV and connected Kinect sit on a knee-high entertainment stand against the wall.
As it turns out, that's not just a shiny-happy-people ideal, it's a requirement.
With the understanding that Kinect offers an off-the-couch gaming experience, that you'll need to move the coffee table out of the way is a given. However, while Kinect's instructions indicate that the device needs to sit under or over a flat panel TV within 2 to 6 feet off the floor, our testing environment had Kinect struggling when placed at both the minimum and maximum heights suggested, above a picture- high, wall-mounted TV or below on the 2' high cabinet.
In fairness, our seven-person testing crew range in height from 2'6" to 5'8", and Kinect seems unable to distinguish a toddler from dad's right leg when forced to "see" both, and assumes someone's having one mean conniption. This is also why a family with 5 kids ages 2 thru 12 won't be appearing in Kinect commercials any time soon, though maybe in an advertisement in Catholic Digest (badoom-pah).
It took the 7-year-old in the crew to figure out that a stubby tower of MegaBlok's could set the sensor at an ideal (for us) height of 42 inches - just below the wall mounted 46" Sharp Aquos Quattron (sweeet). Other user experiences may vary. It took the 2-year-old 10 seconds to shriek with glee and topple said tower and a dad with cat-like reflexes to grab the sensor before it smashed.
Needless to say, Kinect expects you to dispose of your toddlers or have a roll of duct tape handy. Fair enough. And then there were six.
Next up, the instruction book suggests you stand 6 feet away from the sensor while a second player, if optioned, should stand 8 feet away from the sensor and arm's length from the first player. Good call, considering the YouTube-documented
dad-elbows-son-in-face mega hit appearing on day 1 and dozens of "Kinect Fail" videos after that.
So yeah, lots of space needed. Even more than suggested, actually, as Kinect and its instruction booklet don't seem to be on speaking terms. The sensor instead insisted the "good" position for one player was 8 feet away, not 6, and the second player barely "good" at 10 feet away, also known as standing on the couch, where upon Kinect surmises the first player is now on his knees because the second player could not possibly be 7'9".
Assuming the average living room is 12, maybe 14 feet deep, take away roughly 3 feet for the couch and two feet for the entertainment unit, you have 7 to 9 feet of Kinect-friendly space. As dad's back is not what it used to be, our testing scenario left the couch in place and only one person testing at a time.
After a great deal of calibrating and re-acquainting Kinect with its environment and the bodies on hand, playing Kinect games actually turned out to be a lot of fun - with caveats.
As advertised, you use your whole body as the controller; mostly hand gestures for all the basics, plus a the gambit of running on the spot, head bobbing, arm flailing, body swaying and kicking motions in games. And yes, you'll look ridiculous. Kinect will even snap a few photos on-the-fly and embarrass you with them later. Fine. And then there were five, said mom.
Kinect comes bundled with a mini game collection called "Kinect Adventures!" that could have done without the exclamation point. Nevertheless, Adventures does offer a solid sample of what Kinect can to your living room: make it a lively place for the family to hang out and watch at least one person, maybe two people make spastic fools of themselves and synchronize the spasms with some rather stunning high def visual up there on the TV. This includes jumping in a river raft (repeatedly), whacking at balls in a 3D breakout kind of thing, dodging obstacles while standing on a conveyor belt, and plugging aquarium leaks with your head.
Sold separately, a game called Kinectimals had the 4-year-old girl of the group absolutely gushing with joy as she interacted with a big cat cub, petting it virtually, playing fetch and spinning with it like a ballerina. It didn't bother her that Kinect assumed she was an adult on her knees rather than a little girl standing up, but it did make for a peculiar rendition of jumping-like-a-double amputee. Mind you, this was before we taught Kinect who was who and who and how tall, a brutally cumbersome process.
Also on hand was Kinect Joy Ride, and effective little "air driver" where you make like you're holding a steering wheel. Not precise enough for Formula One, but silly, wholesome racing fun nonetheless.
Kinect Sports, meanwhile, offered token similarity with Wii Sports, but the controller free play of it all did make for an utterly fresh experience - though still a little slipshod at times, more dumb luck than competitive. Kinect bowling, it should be noted, is an absolute standout, the best motion-activating bowling of any platfrom.
That said, fun as it is, the body-as-controller shtick is currently a sluggish affair more often than not - the same sort of laggy, hit and miss exactitude as the good ol' Wii. Much better looking mind you, and spooky cool with the controller-free control concept. But slow to behold, no doubt about it.
In fairness, Kinect never promised a suite of neurosurgery and small appliance repair games. Not yet, anyway. Still, rushed to market, no question. Kinect needed another year of tuning, tweaking, and debugging, certainly. Of course, one could argue that there was market share in the waiting, Wii's sales are slumping, opportunity knocks, the next new thing is needed now and Kinect is certainly "it," get it out there. Polish it up on the fly, because everyone's internet connected and patches and firmware updates are relatively easy. That's the now and the future of Kinect: pretty great family fun for those with the space or the patience to set it up now, great gobs of controller-free potential to be realized in a year or two. Or so Darwin would indicate.