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Microsoft looks to Kinect as game-changer

Xbox 360 maker is clearly hoping its new motion control system will help it take on Nintendo's Wii and bury Sony's PlayStation 3. But there are those who think Microsoft will have to wait awhile.

Exactly how much of a game-changer is Microsoft's Kinect? It's too early to tell, of course, but the device may be more about its potential for the future than about what is coming in the first few months.

news analysis LOS ANGELES--If one thing was clear in the lead-up to the Xbox 360 E3 press conference, it was that hard-core gamers felt threatened by Microsoft's obvious move toward casual gaming with its forthcoming Kinect motion control system.

But while the company is indeed hoping Kinect and its ease of use and accessibility to just about anyone can help it capture a much larger audience, it also wants its longtime loyalists to know they haven't been forgotten.

That much was evident at the press conference, which took place here Monday morning. Before Kinect was ever mentioned, those in the audience were blasted with demos of purely hard-core titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops, Metal Gear Solid: Rising, Halo: Reach, and Gears of War 3. The new Call of Duty, from the developer Treyarch, rather than Infinity Ward, which made the record-breaking Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, will be released on November 9, while Halo: Reach is expected in September.

And with a new, slimmer and smaller $299 Xbox hitting retailers this week with its 250-gigabyte hard drive and built-in Wi-Fi, hardcore gamers who choose to buy the new model will have plenty of hardware to work with.

There's no doubt, though, that the star of Monday's Xbox event was Kinect, formerly known as Project Natal. Kinect will be released in North America on November 4, and while Microsoft hasn't yet named its price--rumors have it in the $100 to $150 range--you can be sure Microsoft is going to want to make it accessible to the masses that it now hopes to lure in to the Xbox platform.

And that's what Kinect is: a platform play. Microsoft sees the new hardware--which can sense and respond to users' body motions as well as their voices--taking an integral role in the living room, and joining with Xbox Live to bring the Xbox that much closer to the entire family.

The specs, at least as Microsoft has spelled them out, of Kinect for Xbox 360. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

"I believe that the living room is being redefined and reimagined," said Marc Whitten, the general manager of Xbox Live, in an interview. "How people are going to consume entertainment is changing in this amazing time we are in. When you look at Xbox 360 and what we have with Live, and the power to bring in Kinect, which gives you this natural user interface to drive on top of that, that's what's going to be really special--whether that's about all the games you can play or the new user entertainment experiences. It's really about how you get people to expect more out of their living room."

The idea is to integrate Kinect with Microsoft's entire living room play. So, for example, users will be able to control Netflix movies or TV shows through Xbox Live with nothing more than a wave or two of their hands and a voice command to stop, pause, or play. They will be able to have video chats with friends, watch pro sports games via a Microsoft content partnership with ESPN and, of course, play games.

Now playing: Watch this: E3 2010: Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360

To begin with, Kinect will launch with 15 titles, of which six were announced Monday. Those six are Dance Central, a dancing game from Rock Band developer Harmonix; Kinect Sports, a game that offers soccer, bowling, track, and more; Kinect Joy Ride, a racing game; Kinect Adventures, a game for navigating down rivers and railroad tracks while trying to hit targets; Your Shape, an exercise game; and Kinectimals, a playing-with-animals game for kids.

Throw in the other features of Xbox Live, including the new content from ESPN, Facebook, Last.fm, and Twitter, and you can begin to see how Microsoft is aiming at the entire family, from mom and dad to brother and sister, and across all age groups.

Going after Nintendo
The motion controller wars are only just getting started. For years, of course, Nintendo has dominated the genre with its Wii console and controller system. And now both Microsoft (with Kinect) and Sony (with the PlayStation Move system it will surely talk about at its own press conference Tuesday) are joining the fray.

While Sony should never be counted out, it's obvious that Microsoft is much more concerned with taking on Nintendo in the battle for the non-hard-core gamer.

Indeed, the six launch titles seem eerily reminiscent of many of the biggest games and accessories from Nintendo, albeit taking them up a notch or two.

For example, Your Shape seems like Microsoft's answer to the very popular Wii Fit software and Balance Board hardware from Nintendo. Kinect Sports--which I'm guessing will ship with Kinect--is the obvious counterpart to Wii Sports. Kinectimals seems like Nintendo's Nintendogs, for the DS handheld device, on steroids. And so on.

Whitten questioned that logic, however.

"I think that [Nintendo has] brought new people to the [gaming] category," said Whitten. "What they've done has been great for our industry. [But] I don't think Kinect is our answer. It's our vision for how we redefine technology in the living room, and how we solve these problems people are faced with."

Still, it's hard to see how Microsoft wasn't thinking of a core set of games to launch Kinect with and trying to capture the same types of people Nintendo did with its earliest Wii efforts.

I think that Microsoft is on the right track, but has a long way to go. Assuming Kinect costs $100, that would bring the total cost of an Xbox 360 to $399, given the console's $299 sticker price and $100 for Kinect. That is quite a bit more expensive than the Wii, which runs $199. However, you would have to spend more to get Nintendo's Balance Board, so taking that into account, it starts to become a closer price comparison. Still, Microsoft's offering is bound to cost more, in the short term at least.

Perhaps a bigger question is whether users will want what Microsoft has to offer with Kinect. The initial six games seem like they could be fun, but just how much fun is the real puzzler. Also, will we have to pay for all six of those games separately, or will they be included with Kinect. My money is on most of them being separate, though as I said, I bet Kinect Sports comes with the device.

Ultimately, though, I have to nod my head at Microsoft for at least trying to create an environment of real balance between its loyal core of serious gamers and the huge new audience the company is trying to attract.

It's tempting to predict that the emergence of Kinect will scare off the Halo players of the world, but I'm doubting that. I think those people will continue to play their games of choice even as Microsoft lures in plenty of new customers with its wide range of Xbox Live offerings.

As for whether Kinect will realize its true potential, I think it's really a matter of when, not if. The technology is definitely there, but I'm not sure the software is just yet.

But give Microsoft some time, and I suspect we'll see in six months or a year a much more complete selection of games for Kinect, and with that will come entire new audiences for the company's software. But I doubt we'll see that mass adoption this year.

And then, of course, there's the question of how Nintendo and Sony will answer Microsoft's throwing down of the gauntlet. Both those companies have their own press conferences on Tuesday and we should not expect Microsoft's challenge to remain unanswered.

On June 24, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman and his Geek Gestalt blog will kick off Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my preparations for the project on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip.