Xbox Kinect, Hands-On

I have jumped in front of an Xbox 360 and tried Microsoft’s Kinect motion control system (formerly known as Project Natal) with Kinect Sports, Driving and Dancing Central. I do “ok” at bowling, but I’m clearly a lame dancer… meh. Anyway, the goal of this exercise is to report on how good Kinect is as a game controller, and the results are quite good – with a few caveats.

Kinect does a great job at detecting the player’s presence (one or more) and at responding to user interface commands like selection and confirmation. depending on the game, you might have to “hover to select” or “swipe to select”, but either way, it is fairly easy and intuitive. There was no setup, I just showed up and played.

Kinect works, no player setup required

Kinect did very well with all the games mentioned earlier. It is my understanding that many titles have been worked on for about a year and each team still has a little more time to make final tweaks. The first batch of games that we tried were all using full body motion – the real strength of Kinect. The car driving was easy and the fun sinks in quickly: after one race, you master the basics and learn from there. As I said, my favorite was the bowling, mainly because I scored (yay!) but Dance Central was a real killer: I think that it will be a hit, like Dance Dance Revolution was. check out the video below, it shows the team that worked on the choreographies. Kinect also does extremely well in games like sports and fitness where -again- the full body motion is required.

The producer of Dance Central showing off her game, and skills

Kinect isn’t a silver-bullet right now

However, Kinect doesn’t completely replace sensor-based motion controllers like the Wiimote or the PS Move. For one, I found that latency is noticeable. In the Fitness game, it seemed to be around 1/3 of a second, which is big. I just “eyeballed it”, so this is not a scientific measure by any mean (maybe Microsoft can answer this). I just want to point out that the latency is perceptible. May be that’s why we are not seeing a lot of super-realistic fighting games, yet. A Star Wars game might change this, but so far, even Metal Gear Solid Rising is using an “assisted” system to help the player see how the sword will move.

Sony has spotted this issue too and it has been quick to point out that it PS Move would be more accurate (and faster to react), without forgetting that “buttons” are very useful for gaming, it’s hard to deny. The other thing that Kinect might have problems with is “aiming/pointing”. Both the Wii and the PS move can aim accurately and support shooters lime Time Crisis (or Point Blank!). For Kinect, This might it is much harder given that it lacks the precision of a sensor or infra-red hardware. I would not rule this feature out, but at the very least, Microsoft’s engineers will have to sweat to pull that one off.

Metal Gear Solid Rising Trailer
Star Wars for Kinect Trailer

Nintendo under pressure, the market will decide

But despite the caveats, the Kinect value proposition still has a great chance to resonate with part of the public, as casual games can often be as much fun, or much better than the Nintendo Equivalent. If you pair that with exclusive content partnerships for games, music and TV, you’ve got a system that can attract a whole new crowd.

From a communication’s standpoint, Microsoft is also in a good place. Stuff like “the human is the ultimate controller” or “5 Million years of R&D” might not exactly describe reality, but it captures the imagination much more than a stick with a glowing ball.

In the end, “this is ( also) about gaming” as Sony would put it: many gamers will base their purchasing decision on the titles that they like. The competition will be intense, but Kinect and PS Move are both entering into Nintendo’s territory. If anything, Sony has a clear technological advantage over Nintendo, which has a pricing advantage and “Wii” still represents “fun” in many people’s mind.

More than gaming

But don’t forget that while E3 is be about gaming, Kinect is more than gaming. It has the potential of changing the way we interact with computers and television too. Keep an eye on this, because it will take years before we know what the full potential of Kinect is.

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