Kinect, 2011: Where art thou, motion?

As we head into E3 2011, the Xbox 360's Kinect remains a bit of a gaming mystery.

Scott Stein
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
4 min read
Remember the campaign slogan, "You are the controller?"
Remember the campaign slogan, "You are the controller?" Microsoft

I haven't plugged my Kinect into my Xbox 360 in nearly six months.

The reasons are, to some extent, mine. But not mine alone. Still, whatever excitement I might have felt during the Kinect's debut has withered. It's not essential, not compelling. It's not why I play my Xbox 360. And if I don't have mine plugged in, I'm wondering how many other Kinects are suffering the same fate.

The Kinect's motorized movements get annoying.
The Kinect camera is meant to sit under my TV and be innocuous, but it isn't. The motorized activation process makes it nearly tip off the slightly-sloped base of the TV, and its attempts to scan and sign me in when I'm not playing a Kinect game get tedious. There isn't an easy way to deactivate Kinect functions with a simple button-press or menu option as far as I can see, so I have it unplugged. And unplugged it largely stays.

Xbox 360 interface support is lacking.
When the Kinect enters "Kinect mode," hand and voice gestures and welcome. Otherwise, the Kinect sits on its own island. I tend to play Xbox 360 games with a controller in hand, and the Kinect just doesn't fit in to quick-play sessions. It's not as easy, or even possible, to navigate all of the Xbox 360's features and apps with the Kinect, and so I generally don't.

My apartment's dimensions aren't Kinect-friendly.
I still don't have a living room deep enough to play Kinect games like Dance Central and Kinect Adventures. Dance Central is hands-down the most compelling Kinect game yet, but it's useless without proper play space. I'd love to see a Kinect firmware update allow more forgiving space allocations, but I don't know if the hardware can support it.

Unique games? Not lately.
After November's Kinect launch, purple Kinect game-boxes slowed not just to a trickle, but to a near dead standstill. It costs money to develop good-looking, compellingly designed Kinect games, and the Kinect user group will always be by definition a smaller subset of all of Xbox 360 owners. It's simply an expensive market to target, unless developers focus on cheaper indie-style games. I'd love to see Xbox Live downloadable Kinect games, ones that cost less to make and cost less to buy. Motion control gaming needn't always look pretty or advanced: what about retro-style games or games like Braid or Flower?

Child of Eden is one of the precious few upcoming 2011 Kinect games I've heard of that offer something exciting and different, and as a quirky hallucinogenic shooter, it's probably not enough.

My guess, and it seems to be upheld by pre-E3 rumors, is that the 2011 angle on the Kinect will be baking its use into marquee games. That sounds a lot like what Sony's already tried with the PlayStation Move. It's a big problem, though. If "better with Kinect" is indeed a Microsoft angle at E3 2011, it sounds like a check that can't easily be cashed. People prefer to play traditional games with controllers. I never found myself compelled to play Killzone 3 with a PlayStation Move, and probably never will.

Motion simply isn't essential.
While touch and motion are, to some degree, part of this generation's unique gaming DNA, I'd argue that touch is the one with greater staying power currently. Devices that use touch, like the iPhone and iPad, use it for every function. Even the Nintendo DS baked it into the main operating system. The Wii's motion controls are similarly supported top-to-bottom in the Wii's menu system, but Nintendo's clever hybrid controller/motion wand solution helps hide the truth that most Wii games don't use motion at all. Since most of use the same controller to play, the experience remains seamless. The Kinect, however, uses its own control schemes divorced from the Xbox 360 controller. Users have to switch control schemes, or put down their controllers to play a Kinect title. Until motion becomes a seamless part of the top-to-bottom gaming experience, it'll never feel essential. It's not impossible for us to get there, but it doesn't seem likely this year or even next.

Related links
Console Evolution: Wii, PS3, 360
Which of your peripherals gather dust?
E3 2011: Complete coverage

The Kinect hasn't been on the market a year yet, so it's early days still. However, the true promise of a device like the Kinect hasn't been tapped, and the Kinect experience remains largely the same in June that it was in November. If the Xbox 360 is truly meant to weather several more years of action before a next-gen Microsoft console, the Kinect is key to its survival and evolution...Microsoft just needs to give us more of a reason to use it.