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Kinect: Fad or Future

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This article provides detailed look at the Microsoft Kinect and what everyone should know about its strengths and limitations before they buy.

First announced at E3 in 2009, Microsoft has sold over 2.5 million Kinect units, worldwide, since launching in North America on November 4th. Kinect ads were aimed at casual and new gamers instead of focusing on the hardcore audience targeted by traditional game marketing. The new Xbox 360 accessory may look like a funky webcam, but it adds facial and voice recognition as well as the feature its success depends on: skeletal tracking. Instead of a game knowing when and where a player swings a controller around, as with the Nintendo Wii, the Kinect tracks hands, arms, legs, knees, waist, hips, and head. Reportedly, future games will recognize other objects that can then be used in their world. In Microsoft's words, "You Are the Controller."

Presently, the Kinect is a flawed and frustrating tool, but there is still a lot to like and look forward to and anyone who wants to invest $149.99 in the device should plan on doing so with one eye firmly locked on its future potential.

There are a few things to consider if you are thinking about picking up a Kinect, namely that people with small game rooms and/or low-ceiling dwellings need not apply. Many games require you to wave your hands in the air, jump repeatedly, and move from side-to-side. As I painfully learned, having enough open space is absolutely critical. Officially, solo players need to be at least six feet away from the sensor and two players require a minimum of eight feet. Those, frankly, are modest estimates and seven or eight feet should be the recommended minimum for functional single player fun.

Figure 1 This is Microsoft's vision of your living room. How does yours match up?

Running through the initial sensor setup will be frustrating for those with less space because the camera will be unhappy with your position and not allow you progress until you somehow change it. People can only move as far away from the TV as their back wall lets them and anyone who tries to use the device in such an environment is destined for a trek back to the store to return it.

Once it's working, adding a Kinect to your Xbox 360 gains you access to the Kinect Hub, either by waving to the camera or saying "Xbox, Kinect." This takes you to a separate Kinect-enabled dashboard, letting you make menu selections with your hands or talking to the Xbox. Here the menu options are large and clear and the voice command options are clearly labeled. "Xbox, play game" is pretty self-explanatory and quite handy. Unfortunately, as much as Microsoft would like us all to believe otherwise, sometimes it sucks to be the controller.

As smooth as the Kinect Hub experience can be, implementing this "human interface" has proven to be a challenge for some developers. DanceMasters, from Japanese music game developer Konami, did not properly consider how much time was wasted standing and endlessly scrolling, waving your hand left-to-right and right-to-left, through countless tiny menus with even more submenus. Only the main game, once you get to it, uses the human body in a fluid and natural manner. It's easy to believe that DanceMasters' menu system was designed for a controller and just had motion controls tacked on at the end.

Predictably, the launch title that perfectly shows how a Kinect game should flow is the game that comes with the hardware: Kinect Adventures. It's no wonder Microsoft chose to include it; it's a fabulous introduction to what full body controls can be like. Adventures places you in a lighthearted competition for badges, much like Scouts, only more fun and "extreme." You'll be using your body like a goalie to keep rally balls in play, positioning yourself carefully to plug leaks in a wall, jump and duck under obstacles on a track, and steer a raft down rapids while trying to grab as many collectibles as possible. It also uses your Xbox Avatar as the on-screen character, so you'll really feel attached to the action. The menus consist of huge buttons and the actions you are required to perform make perfect sense when faced with the different situations, no added instructions required. This is when I must caution you, again, to make sure to clear the play area or you will absolutely and exuberantly smack into an errant piece of furniture (or wall).

Figure 2 Get ready for a work out when you start up Kinect Adventures.

The expected assortment of Wii-like sports, fitness, race, and dance games available at launch are all peachy, but it's with games like Kinectimals that a peek at Kinect's potential future comes into focus. Kinectimals, in which you adopt virtual pets, is as much social experiment as a game; as the most complete Tamagotchi-like offering available, you may find yourself growing surprisingly attached to your digital pet. Pets run to the screen when you call them, you can ask them to do basic tricks, and they'll make approving noises as you pet them. This presents a whole new experience, a new dimension to an old premise. Kinectimals removes the layer of abstraction presented when pressing buttons to issue commands. The act of talking out loud and physically reaching out makes you feel more connected to what's going on.

Figure 3 You'll never have to clean up after your Kinectimals pets.

Conversely, when games are not tracking your movements -- you are leaning as far left as you can possibly lean in a racing game, yet your avatar refuses to go anywhere but straight -- it becomes that much more frustrating as a result. Buttons are tactile; it's easy to feel or hear when they are pressed. Should you run outside the Kinect sensor's view, some games will stop the action until it can find you again while others will carry on, expecting you to note the blinking red icon in an upper corner telling you to step front and center.

You also cannot play Kinect games from the couch. Really, you can't. Sitting down tends to mess with the sensor's skeletal tracking and, well, at least this prevents lazy cheaters. If nothing else, now gamers have more than Dance Dance Revolution and WiiFit games to use as proof that gaming is not entirely a sedentary activity. This fact is both a blessing and a curse. Parents may love that it is a very subtle form of exercise for kids that may want nothing to do with actual fresh air, but this is not always a plus for those that use their gaming time to unwind from the day. Jumping up and down, reaching for things that aren't there, and trying to stand just far enough away from the wall not to hit it isn't how I tend to relax.

To a generation, gaming involves precise controls and relaxing on the couch, not broad movements in a crowded living room. In order for Kinect to make inroads with the traditional gamer audience, they'll have to borrow a tactic like the head-tracking feature Polyphony Digital just implemented for the racing game, Gran Turismo 5, on the PlayStation 3. In that game, how you adjust your head relative the PS3's camera, the PlayStation Eye, actually changes the angle of the camera from inside the car, as if you are actually there.

Microsoft will surely work out these details in time. Updates for the Kinect drivers will hopefully straighten out the sitting issue and allow further integration between the camera and controller-based games, thus giving the gamer even more control over their actions and experience so that developers won't have to reinvent the wheel for each offering. Expanding on the Kinect's usability, accuracy, and fun needs to be the focus going forward.

Figure 4 Improving the Kinect's features and tracking abilities is key to its long-term future.

It's not just Microsoft that's looking towards that future. Whether or not Adafruit Industries offered a bounty to the first person to create an open-source driver for the Kinect, enthusiast hacking of the Kinect was bound to happen. Though the average person may not have any desire to play with an invisible Theremin, turn their hand actions into puppetry, or draw lines through the air in 3D space, all of these applications show how much can be accomplished with this "toy." People are also using the Kinect to bounce digital basketballs, turn invisible (sort of), and to create a multitouch surface out of anything. All of these projects, and many more not mentioned here, have been created within the first month of Kinect being released to the world.

Is the Kinect fad or future? Back in 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a device you set it on a table and leaned your head into to gaze at the black and red screen. The device was novel and presented an incredible amount of depth for a 2D monochromatic screen, but that was not enough for it to catch on and survive. When the first rumble controllers started appearing in 1997, gamers noticed right away how it added to the experience. Now rumble is considered a standard, if not essential, feature for gaming. A short month after release, the foundation for the Kinect has begun to take shape. Games like Dance Central show off everything that's brilliant about the platform, but sitting right next to it on the shelf are similar titles like DanceMasters, with its frustrating interface, that could just as easily bury it. Outside of the traditional game developer circles, new Kinect possibilities present themselves with each demo entrepreneurial coders release. These demos push the tech behind the Kinect in new and fascinating directions.

A $149.99USD camera cannot be directly compared to a far cheaper controller, but the extra dimensions it adds absolutely can. Now it is up to market forces to see whether the Kinect has a long life ahead or will be banished to a storage cupboard.

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