Does Kinect hate your small apartment?

Microsoft's Kinect for the Xbox 360 boldly uses controller-free motion technology, but its limitations might leave city dwellers up a creek.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read

The Kinect might force those with small living rooms to make adjustments.
The Kinect might force those with small living rooms to make adjustments. Russ Frushtick

In many ways, Microsoft's Kinect for the Xbox 360 is an innovative concept: ditch the controller and let your body interact directly. Sounds great on paper, but the Kinect is a bit more greedy with its space requirements than either the Nintendo Wii or PlayStation Move, and that could hurt folks with small apartments. Folks like me.

I've had a rough experience with the Kinect in New York City, mainly because my living room has only about 6 feet between my 32-inch TV and the edge of my sofa. The Kinect requires a good 6 to 10 feet of space between the user and it, according to documentation in the games we received. That's a huge amount of room in most urban apartments, especially as that space also needs to be open and unobstructed. The Kinect's setup process suggests you move furniture if necessary, a task that's impossible for me, and an unkind expectation for most people.

My living room is the controller (and it's tiny)
I was able to get my sensor to recognize me and record my movements, but at the distance I had set it up I had to practically stand against the edge of my sofa. If I moved a foot closer, the Kinect would ask me to back up again, which amounted to a narrow landing strip of room to play in. And with at least 5 feet of space between myself and the Kinect needed to be maintained at all times, any freedom of mobility while playing was killed.

What started as a promise of controller-free comfort slowly turned into a sensation of restraint. By comparison, Nintendo's Wii Sports Resort allows me to move anywhere, since its movement-sensing doesn't involve the IR component. I can stand up close or off to the far side of my TV, or even play sitting down. In the case of the Kinect, my background lighting also became a factor. The Kinect's wide-angle view covers an entire half of my living room; it's inevitable that the sensor would encounter a light in the background.

Any seated people behind me, such as my wife reading a book on the sofa, also risk being recognized by the Kinect camera and ruining my game. Bright daylight also posed a problem; in midafternoon, my southern-exposure apartment floods with light that blinds can do little to remedy. The Kinect was noticeably worse under these conditions.

Why I have to play alone
Multiplayer games, based on our first round of launch games, are played side by side...provided you have the space for that, too. Games like Kinect Adventures delineate two play zones: "Good" and "Best." Two-player games are possible only in "Best," a strip of playing-space a good 2 feet behind "Good." My living room's front-of-sofa zone is "Good" only. I could only get to "Best" by standing on my sofa.

Some titles, such as Joy Ride, allow multiplayer at closer ranges, but it's a hit-and-miss affair. Even worse, the Kinect's fine-tune settings involved focusing on a face icon on an included card that I needed to press up against my far wall. Clearly, I don't have enough space.

I'm not the only one. We asked other people about space limitations with the Kinect, and found city commiseration. MTV's Russ Frushtick said, "Ideally, you need 8 square feet of wide-open space. I don't think anyone in New York has that. I basically had to make a makeshift shelf behind my TV, since it wouldn't rest on top of my TV, which is sloped. With that, I just barely had enough space."

My fellow CNET gamer Dan Ackerman had the same problems in his living room, except he balanced his Kinect on the back of a Halo: Reach Collector's Edition case: "I had about 6 feet from the front lip of the couch to the camera. This allowed for the 'good' but not the 'better' play space for most games, although I had to lean backward over the couch to even get that to register. I'm sure the space requirements seem less onerous in areas better suited for spacious suburban living rooms--Redmond, perhaps."

Small TVs not invited?
Since 6 feet is the bare minimum of space needed between a player and the Kinect, there's also some subtle discrimination against small TVs. According to CNET's TV buyer's guide, 6 feet of distance equates to a 42-inch screen. Seated a foot back on a sofa, that screen size should even be larger. That's a judgment made in terms of ideal home theater immersion; you could play games on a smaller screen from that distance, but it'll be a challenge on your eyes.

My 32-inch HDTV was hard to make out even at 6 feet away; I'm normally sitting closer when I play games. I'm sure most owners of small TVs naturally set up their living spaces more tightly as well, adding even more potential problems to Kinect setup.

Another consideration for people with kids: as CNET's David Katzmeier pointed out, the Kinect assumes you're playing in a living room, or some other spacious family entertainment zone. What if the Xbox 360 is in a kid's bedroom? While a Wii or a PlayStation Move could make do with smaller spaces (the Move's minimum recommended range, 3 feet, is half the distance), the Kinect would be rendered useless.

More than half the world's population already lives in cities. If these people have apartments my size or smaller, they'll all have problems. The Kinect could be the game industry's first space-discriminating peripheral.

Kinect, I want to use you; you're just making it awfully hard for me.

Read CNET's review of the Kinect, and read our hands-on opinion of the six launch games.