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With its emphasis on fun over graphics, the Nintendo Wii has been the surprise hit of the current generation of game consoles. It's taken a few years, but Sony and Microsoft have finally answered the motion-gaming call with the PlayStation Move and the Xbox Kinect (reviewed here). Whether your loyalties lie with motion gaming, it appears that for the time being the trend is here to stay.
Though it can broadly be called a "motion controller," Microsoft's Kinect is a different beast. Unlike both Sony's Move and Nintendo's Wii MotionPlus controllers--which detect motion as you wave them around in your hands--Kinect turns your entire body into the "controller," with the Kinect hardware--a motion detector/camera that you set up in front of or on top of your TV--converting your movements into gestures that the Xbox can understand.
Microsoft not only sees Kinect as a means to widen the general gaming audience, but a way to interact with the menu system of the Xbox 360. But that "Minority Report"-like future is going to cost you: the Kinect is priced at $150 (though that price includes the game Kinect Adventures). Is it worth it, and is it a must-have add-on for existing Xbox owners?
The entirety of the Kinect consists of a black camera bar that's much larger than most Webcams but is compact enough to reside near a TV without being too conspicuous. The actual Kinect sensor is roughly 11 inches wide by 3 inches deep, and can be centered above or below your TV (though a separate above-TV mount is recommended for flat screens). It sits on a small square base that allows the unit to automatically adjust its viewing angle using a motorized head. You'll see this pivoting feature in action during the device's initial setup and when launching games. The base is rubberized enough to provide sufficient traction even on the slightly curved surface of our home TV's stand, although Microsoft recommends flat placement in the instructions.
On the front of the Kinect sensor are windows that hide depth sensors, an RGB camera, and a multiarray microphone. Tilt it at certain angles and you can even make out a slightly flickering infrared light that helps the advanced Kinect camera scan the room. A green LED light flashes upon Kinect's boot-up, and remains solid when connected.
We're anticipating that most of Kinect's controversy will not reside in how well the system works, but rather the space needed to play properly. A recommended minimum of 6 feet of room should be in between the active players and the sensor, which is a hefty amount of real estate to request.
A lot of the promotional photography sent out with Kinect press releases shows a family enjoying the system in a wide-open living room. Of course, real life doesn't always allow for such room--especially for those who live in an apartment versus a spacious suburban home. Therefore, we cannot stress enough that having the space to play Kinect should be paramount when considering a purchase.
We're also a bit skeptical about the minimum TV size requirements for Kinect. Microsoft has not advised any specific sizes, but we're not sure Kinect would be as fun on a 26-inch set. Because using hand movements to navigate requires a bit of buffer room onscreen, we'd think a 32-inch set or higher would work best. Of course it goes without saying that an HDTV serves Kinect better as well, but anyone who's seen standard-def gaming compared with HD already knows that.
Setting up the Kinect sensor is mostly painless, though the steps needed to properly "tune" the device can be somewhat time-consuming. Because Kinect can respond to audio commands, the system first needs to measure the amount of ambient noise in your home, a process that could get trying if you have noisy environs.
After a few minutes of setup, Kinect is ready to go, though there is the option to calibrate some more in the Kinect menu options.
Attaching Kinect to your Xbox 360 is simple if you own a newer Slim model. The dedicated Kinect proprietary port around back serves for power and data, and requires no other connection. However, owners of older (pre-summer 2010) Xbox 360 consoles will need to use the included USB splitter cable that must be plugged into an AC outlet in addition to the console.
Also included in the Kinect box is a copy of Kinect Adventures, a Microsoft title that includes a variety of motion-based games.
Interface and implementation
As we mentioned earlier, Microsoft's custom Kinect software completely revamps the look and feel of the Xbox 360 dashboard. The new Xbox 360 fall update includes provisions for Kinect's implementation, but most of its functionality will remain hidden until the Kinect sensor is present.
There is certainly a wow factor the first time Kinect is used to navigate through Xbox 360. It's true, we instantly thought of Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" waving and swiping at items onscreen. Sliding our hand left or right to reveal a new page is among the most satisfying experiences when using Kinect to navigate.
Since Kinect is always on, the user can activate Kinect controls simply by waving "hello" at the screen. A small hand icon in the bottom-right corner begins to animate, and the dashboard will automatically switch to the Kinect-enabled menu system.
This menu, called Kinect Hub, features oversize icons representing each Kinect-compatible Xbox 360 feature. Selecting one involves holding your mouse-cursor-like hand icon static over a selection for a few seconds.
At launch, the Kinect Hub will feature Zune, Video Kinect, ESPN, Last.fm, and an avatar editor app, among others. (Note: Last.fm, like CNET, is a division of CBS Interactive.) However, there is currently no support for features like DVD playback and Netflix. Interacting with supported apps remains mostly consistent across the board. Any user can scrub along a video's timeline intuitively or pause and stop at any time. The process feels intuitive, and not unlike a motion-based version of the iPhone.
If moving your hand to skip through a video or ESPN highlight doesn't sound appealing, users can also pause, stop, fast forward, and rewind content simply by speaking. Voice control is initiated by saying "Xbox," after which a pop-up menu crawls up, listing the available commands. We found some inconsistencies as to where voice control is available--but when it is, a microphone icon is shown in the bottom-right corner.
Among the available apps, we were most impressed with Video Kinect, the system's video chat client. Not only can users communicate with other Xbox 360 Kinect users, but also any Windows Live Messenger user as well. Here, the sensor's head-tracking feature really comes into to play, allowing the subject to move freely in a general area without necessarily leaving the frame.
Kinect on Xbox 360 can also do body scans and associate the information with specific Xbox Live log-ins. Though it does seem a bit tedious to log in to Xbox Live this way, it may be less confusing for the less savvy Xbox user. Of course, it's certainly not quicker than simply taking the controller and manually doing so.
To that point, though we're impressed with how well Kinect navigation performs with apps and video controls, we don't think it's the most efficient way to interact with the console. Kinect's response was finicky, which caused us to continually wave at the screen until we were sensed. At the end of the day, we found ourselves just reaching for the controller instead.
The acoustics of your play area will also dictate the success rate with Kinect's microphone. We had no major issues in our smaller living room, but we experienced problems at some of the live demos in loftier environments.
Microsoft supplied us with six launch games, which will be available November 4. In addition to these titles, a total of 17 games will be available for Kinect by year's end. A variety of new franchises are being created specifically for Kinect, while some pre-existing franchises such as Sonic are also getting the Kinect treatment. Kinect games come in a purple box (as opposed to the traditional neon green Xbox 360 case), with most games retailing for $50.
We played with Kinect Adventures (included with the hardware), Kinect Sports, Kinectimals, Kinect Joy Ride, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, and Dance Party (read our hands-on impressions here). Some games felt like they were priced a bit steep, others had control issues, but most fell in the category of either minigame compilations (Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports) or fitness-oriented titles (Dance Central and Your Shape).
Every game we played required the user to stand.
To that point, Kinect had us sweating and working harder than any other motion-control system out there. This is great news for potential Kinect users who want to use the system as a workout aid, but might be problematic for the gamer who's just looking to zone out rather than work up a sweat.
We also recommend playing these Kinect games with at least one other person. Though the titles support single-player modes, they're much more fun in tandem, and most Kinect games we tried support side-by-side multiplayer well. However, the amount of space needed for multiplayer increases substantially; not all living rooms might have enough depth to allow for two-player games, and that's a problem.
There's also a timing learning curve that varies from game to game. It's not lag so much as an understanding of how the game interprets movement that may take a few days of playing to get used to. Some games use literal one-to-one motion, whereas others use gestural approximations.
Comparisons with other motion gaming
It's tough to directly compare PlayStation Move or the Nintendo Wii with Kinect simply because Kinect will not afford the hard-core gamer the luxuries of push-button accuracy like what we've seen is available for Move, nor will it replace the satisfaction of precision-dependent tilt-based physics on the Wii.
Controller-free gaming has its pros and cons. It makes first-person shooters and other precision titles near-impossible. However, those concerned with the seemingly endless laundry list of pricey plastic accessories will be grateful for the lack of clutter and the fact that with Kinect, there's nothing else to buy.
That said, we can't stress enough that Kinect is its own beast. Whatever limitations Kinect comes with, the same can be said for the endless number of applications developers could potentially find for it.
While we're not fully sold on the navigation properties Kinect showcases at this moment, there's a chance the technology will result in more innovative gameplay later on. Whether it will, of course, remains to be seen, and requires a leap of faith on the part of the consumer.
We also think that though there's certainly nothing wrong with getting gamers off the couch, Kinect needs to have games that can be played sitting down. The launch library doesn't seem to provide much for the gamer who's tired after a long day at work.
Kinect doesn't sell itself as something it's not, and we appreciate the honesty. Perhaps its navigation control is more of a novelty than a replacement. Nevertheless, the launch games showcase a solid variety, all in beautiful HD graphics that outshine what you'd find on the comparatively underpowered Wii.
Kinect is great for parties and homes with large living-room areas, but not the cramped dorm room. If your idea of escaping to play games involves a lot of standing and dynamic, full-body movement, Kinect will probably work well for you. If you're the type of gamer who isn't quite ready for the move off the couch, we'd recommend waiting to see what the future holds.
At $150, we think Kinect is expensive--$50 more gets you a full Wii system, after all. But when you consider it's all you'll ever need to buy (there are no extra controllers needed for additional players, for example), the price becomes more reasonable. A better buy for those who don't own an Xbox 360 is to purchase a Kinect bundle--either the Kinect 4GB Slim bundle for $300 or the 250GB bundle for $400, each of which will save you $50 over purchasing separately. Just be sure that you have enough room in the house to properly use it, and that you're ready for a stand-up workout while playing.