The Xbox Live Vision camera for Xbox 360 has finally arrived, and it currently comes in two bundles. The entry-level version retails for a modest $40 and includes an Xbox 360 headset, a one-month trial for Xbox Live Gold, and a free download code for Xbox Live Arcade game UNO. The $79 Xbox Live Vision Gold Pack adds a year-long Xbox Live Gold subscription (which enables online gameplay with other 360 users), 200 Microsoft Points that can be spent on Xbox Live Marketplace content, and another Xbox Live Arcade game, Robotron 2084. TotemBall, the first game to require the Xbox Live Vision Camera, was originally slated to release with the camera, but it was slightly delayed and is now a free download.
From a design standpoint, the Xbox Live Vision camera is a pretty nice piece of gear. It matches the Xbox 360's coloring, it tilts and swivels nicely, and it's meant to propped up on top of your TV or any flat surface. The early review sample we received didn't have any way to adhere the camera to a surface, but chances are you'll end up wanting to move it around anyway, depending on whether you're sitting or standing.
Setting up the camera was easy. You must have a subscription to Xbox Live Gold, and your Xbox Live system software must be updated to the latest version. Ideally, you plug the camera into the USB port on the back of your Xbox 360, but if you already have a USB wireless adapter connected to that port, you'll have to go for one of the two front USB inputs. If you have only wireless controllers and you think it's ugly to have a cable sticking out of the front of your Xbox 360, we feel your pain, having pointed out this design flaw in our review of the Xbox 360.
Once the camera is plugged in to a USB port, you're good to go, and if you look closely, you'll notice that image on the camera is projected onto the background of the Xbox Live menu system, creating a cool shimmering water effect--this effect is most noticeable on the system's default theme. To see yourself and adjust the picture settings, you select Xbox Live Vision from within Xbox Live menu system. You'll find options for fluorescent lighting and dark vs. light back walls. Tweaking the settings will indeed impact the picture, but we found that it was easier just to leave the camera on the Automatic lighting adjustment setting, which yielded perfectly acceptable results.
You can video chat in real time while playing Xbox Live Arcade games such as UNO, Bankshot Billiards 2, Hardwood Hearts, Hardwood Spades, and Hardwood Backgammon; several other titles will become Vision-enabled in the future. Microsoft has also said that you'll be able to take a picture of yourself and map your face to your avatar in make-a-player modes in certain sports games and card games such as Activison's World Series of Poker. Until those games arrive, you can change your gamer photo using the camera. You have the choice between two gamer photos--one that's displayed to your private buddy list and one that's seen by everyone else--your public persona, if you will. You can use the Xbox Live Vision Camera only for your private photo, which is okay with us, as it safeguards your privacy while keeping potentially lewd images at bay. Once you take a picture--there's no optical zoom function, but you can digitally zoom in on yourself--you can choose between several effects to alter or enhance your image. That's fairly cool. What's more of trip is to go into music mode and play around with the visualization with hand gestures. We dug that.
As for video quality, it's what you'd expect from an entry-level video camera with 640x480 resolution (1.3-megapixel still-image capture). When we were video-chatting during a Hardwood Backgammon game, the picture was a little grainy but the video was mostly smooth (30fps), though you'll hit some moments of choppiness, depending on the quality of your Web connection. Still-image capture was a bit disappointing--it's on a par with the pictures a basic cellphone camera produces--but we've yet to try the map-your-face feature in a game, so we'll reserve final judgment until we do.
There really isn't too much else to say, at this point anyway. We'd like to see a few more gesture-based games available in the future, and we hope that face-mapping is more widely utilized, as well. But for the money, considering it costs the same as a wired controller and can double as a Web cam on your PC or Mac--you're required to download a small software app in Windows--the Xbox Live Vision camera is a decent value. While it may not yet be a must-have Xbox 360 accessory, we suspect that as Microsoft upgrades Xbox Live to include more Vision features, it will be.
Editor's note: It's unclear how Microsoft will go about policing any lewd activity that might occur when users are video-chatting, but we did get the following statement from the company's PR team: "We'd like to remind parents who have young children to enable Family Friendly settings for their kids' Xbox Live account, and to configure the settings to the communication level with which they are most comfortable."