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How Microsoft made Kinect work around the globe

At the Game Developers Conference, Microsoft talks about what it took to make the Kinect work with different languages and cultures while at the same time fighting for space and secrecy ahead of the launch.

Kinect unit
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--The wave is one of the most universal ways of saying hello or drawing attention, but how do you create an entire language of gestures that people know, make sure they work with your specialized camera system, then make it work around the world?

Microsoft faced that problem while developing the Kinect, which the company discussed today during a session here at this year's Game Developers Conference, which kicks off in earnest on Wednesday.

On hand was Kate Edwards, who is a geocultural content strategist for Englobe, a company that specializes in geopolitical and cartographic consultation. Edwards briefly outlined how Microsoft had been challenged with trying to make sure Kinect games were not going to offend other cultures where those games might end up.

Edwards said that while there were many ways to express the same thing, there were specific nuances for each culture that could get game makers in hot water if they accidentally crossed a line. To make sure that didn't happen, the company analyzed image captures of game movements that users were supposed to emulate, and spotted such problematic items based on where the game would be shipping.

Once identified, the company would find a suitable replacement for such gestures, as had to be done for the launch title Dance Central, which has users stringing together lines of dance moves. Edwards said one of the easiest changes to make was with the hands, whereas the more difficult ones had to do with full body movements, which often played into a particular dance, or flow of the dance movements.

Dance Central
Dance Central was one of the titles where Microsoft replaced certain gestures with ones more suitable for a particular culture. Microsoft

Also discussed during the session was localizing games for various languages, which was no small undertaking. As Microsoft international program manager Yumiko Murphy explained during the same session, the company had to come up with alternate words for each voice command, then code them into the game so that users would not have to go out of their way to learn new commands. This proved to be considerably extensive with Kinectimals, a game that has users training virtual jungle cats with hand gestures and their voice.

To train the system for that game, Microsoft gathered 10 boys and 10 girls ages 6 to 12, as well as five men and five women from ages 18 to 50 to speak each command two to three times. After that, Microsoft would go through the lexicon of commands to make sure no two commands were too similar, then set four males and four females to run through them to make sure they could be identified by the system. Keep in mind this would be repeated in each of the various localized markets where the title was being launched.

Two other problems in localizing games during the run up to Kinect's release were secrecy and space. Microsoft localization program manager Lief Thompson described that time as a dramatic challenge for the company. Microsoft had originally set out to let third parties do testing of the platform for their game localization, but ran into problems trying to make sure they could keep the development units in a secured location that was out of public view. Since Kinect wasn't out, Microsoft needed to make sure that facilities where it was being tested were not just under lock and key, but under 24-7 watch by security personnel, and safe from photography.

Microsoft also ran into trouble with space. Kinect just took up too much play space at 40 to 50 square feet. The solution for both issues was to keep the test units on Microsoft's campuses both in Redmond, Wash., and in the company's offices in Dublin and Tokyo. Tokyo in particular had to create three new test bays so that it could localize five of the launch titles to Japanese, Korean, and traditional Chinese.

"We were running short on time, and well into June of last year we were digging into every nook and cranny Microsoft had," Thompson said.