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Witness the maturation of Xbox Kinect

Fast-forward a year and Kinect shows more potential than previously thought.

James Martin/CNET

LOS ANGELES--If you thought Microsoft's motion-sensing controllerless technology Kinect was going to take a back seat this year, you were wrong. In the minutes leading up to the press conference's start, I first noticed a trio of Kinect sensors slyly facing the stage. It would be a telling premonition of what was in store for the world's fastest-selling electronic gadget.

But while Kinect has garnered more groans than praise in recent months, Microsoft's press conference demonstrated somewhat of a maturation for the motion-control initiative. Whereas Kinect functionality initially seemed forced upon software that didn't necessarily need it, a few interesting implementations may have skeptics turning into believers.

On the gaming side of things, the packed house at the Galen Center witnessed the creative application of Kinect in the debut of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, in which players can use their voices to draw an enemy's attention.

James Martin/CNET

It may have taken a year for developers to realize, but the natural application of Kinect functionality is where it's most effective.

But perhaps the most convincing use of Kinect was during a brief Madden 13 demo, where NFL great Joe Montana was on hand to show how Kinect will expand a player's range of control at the line of scrimmage. Where once a series of complex button inputs was required for a quarterback to call audibles and quick-routes, a Kinect-equipped gamer can now shout them out.

James Martin/CNET

In FIFA 13 certain plays can now be voiced with ease, like calling for a pass. Player substitutions will also get the voice treatment as well -- something that's been notoriously tedious in past versions.

I'd imagine Xbox exclusives like Halo 4 and Gears of War Judgement will enjoy the benefits of Kinect's maturation as well, though the details of their specific integration remain unknown.

Of course Microsoft wasn't about to give up on Kinect-only games altogether, as newcomer Wreckateer looks like Kinect's 3D version of Angry Birds. Save for Wreckateer, Dance Central 3, and an ambiguous teaser for a game called Matter, Kinect-only games didn't monopolize press conference time the way they did last year.

James Martin/CNET

A few ghosts of the motion-control workout craze did remain, though. The company also announced a new fitness partnership with Nike+, a system that monitors progress and promises a more complete workout system.

Arguably the biggest announcement of the Microsoft presser was SmartGlass, a way for mobile devices to provide companion features to Xbox games and content. Kinect's role in SmartGlass will help users navigate the Web with Internet Explorer on Xbox, among other features.

James Martin/CNET

I was expecting more of the same from Kinect, but Microsoft has cleverly shifted its focus to a more natural implementation. Kinect succeeds when players don't realize they're using it, and it looks like its use in core games is evolving into just that.