The new benefit, Microsoft says, is that the console is always listening for commands, from turning the system on, to switching among games, apps, and other Xbox One features. Game developers are also now encouraged to build Kinect features into their games, knowing all players will have the hardware.
Under the hood, Microsoft's using an all-new camera, which captures 1080p video (up from the current Kinect's VGA resolution) at 30 frames per second. Microsoft says this higher-quality image gives it more accuracy, and can do all sorts of neat things like detect a player's mood, see whether he or she is looking at the screen, and even detect his or her heart rate. Developers can use this information to tune their games, theoretically adjusting enemy AI, music, and other elements if it senses you're bored.
The new camera has a few other tricks, including a new infrared system that can exclude light sources in a room. In practice, Microsoft says this will help the camera accurately pick up details in living rooms where the lighting may be wildly uneven.
But the real change is how much wider a viewing angle the new Kinect has, something that can open it up to use in smaller living spaces. The Kinect's field of view is 60 percent larger than the existing model's, which means it can recognize up to six people in the same room (up from the current Kinect's four). In our brief demo with a near-final version of the hardware, we didn't see it reach that maximum, but it picked up three people about 5 feet away instantly (which you can see in the video below).
On the hardware front, it's definitely a different-looking beast than the current Kinect. Microsoft's taken on the same, boxy design of the console -- complete with its vents -- and brought it over. This new unit also sits flush with the top of your TV, unlike the current Kinect, which had a motorized stand.
Of course how useful all this is will really depend on what developers make of it. So far, Microsoft's demos of the voice actions in operation have been very slick. The company also says it's spent considerable time beefing up its vocal recognition software for different types of living rooms, languages, and dialects, along with the built-in voice processing in the Xbox One itself. All this is to make the Kinect feel less tacked on, and more of an integral part of using the system.
We'll certainly have more of an idea of just how useful the new hardware will be with some of the first Xbox One games, which are expected to be unveiled and demoed at E3 in June.
Check out our sister site, GameSpot, for the latest news on the Xbox One.