Microsoft's new gizmo, the Kinect motion sensor, kinda freaks me out. The Xbox 360 attachment, in stores as of this morning, looks like a misshapen replacement head for Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, with three camera lenses staring forward like robot eyes. Once set up beneath a TV, it can automatically tilt up and down to adjust its aim, an unadvertised feature that made me leap in surprise. I walked up to it and asked, "Are you sentient?"
Seemed like an appropriate start to our relationship, as my half-day with Kinect has already proven more interesting than the first brushes I've had with any other gaming device. The wow factor surpassed my first touch-screen tap with the Nintendo DS, my first bowling flick on the Wii, or even my first childhood leap with Super Mario Bros. I've joked a lot with friends about Kinect's promises—"You are the controller," "Play with your body," etc.—but here I am, using my feet in a soccer game, my upper body strength in a fitness title, and every motion possible in a dance sim.
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Kinect captures all of this motion with a two-camera tandem—a basic webcam and an infrared sensor—to track bodies and details in 3D space. Arms and legs can matter as much as side-to-side and front-to-back movement.
After years of behind-closed-doors hype and increasing publicity, the big question can finally be answered. Does the $150 Kinect work? Short answer: yes. Long answer: well...
Expect a more in-depth look at Kinect and its launch games early next week. This many full-body games have been a lot to take in for only five hours of use—which, I should note, have been interrupted many times to relax, hydrate, and stave off a headache. (If you're wondering, I'm a fit guy who works out and gave up his car for a bicycle.) I need more time to play, ponder, and pop pills.
I've already come up with a few confident assessments. For starters, your gaming room of choice is not big enough for Kinect. My living room comfortably seats nine people around an HDTV to watch movies or play, er, non-Kinect games. As per Kinect's demands, we had to shove the TV against the wall, prop the sensor on a box, remove the center table, and re-angle the couch. That gave us eight full feet of distance and eight feet of wingspan for two users to be clearly seen by the cameras. Practicality, quite frankly, makes this a no-sell for families who'd rather not pay $150 to redecorate.
Barring that hurdle, Kinect gets the basic job done. In menus, you wave a hand at the screen to point, like the Wii's remotes, only instead of clicking a button, you keep your hand upheld for a full second to choose something. The wait gets annoying, but it's not a dealbreaker, and unlike the Wii or Playstation Move, Kinect adapts extremely well to both sunlight and darkness. (In some menus, you can opt to speak aloud. Say "Xbox" and then a specific phrase, like, "Xbox, sign in," and your request loads. This works well and requires no vocal calibration. Hello, future.)
Navigating your living room box these ways is slick, if limited. You can use your voice and hands to control Xbox channels like ESPN, Zune, and Last.fm, but that won't work for many of Xbox's best features, particularly Netflix and browsing your own media collection. Don't expect that to change anytime soon; Microsoft rolls out sensible, requested updates at a snail's pace.
Once you're past the menus, the 3D motions you generate shake out quite differently depending on the game. Titles like Dance Central and Your Shape: Fitness Evolved have been terrific at translating my motions 1:1 with the on-screen action. Other titles have occasionally proven inaccurate, like when I try to throw a tennis ball at my pet in the cutesy Kinectimals, or downright laggy, like when I have to swing a table tennis racket a quarter-second early in Kinect Sports. (Even these games work fine in other modes, like Sports' wonderful soccer matches or Kinectimals' teach-a-trick instances.)
If you're curious—and you probably are—yes, I already think that Kinect is more fun than the Wii. But that answer comes loaded with asterisks. For one, I'm not sure that Kinect yet has a Wii Sports-caliber game that will keep kids and grandparents coming back; its best games are pretty intense, which is fine by me, but they won't win over relatives at Thanksgiving. And there's a precision trade-off here, best represented, again, by Kinect Sports' table tennis mode. Unlike Wii Sports' version, the game sees exactly where your body is, and the sensor responds to things like sidesteps and forward lunges. Cool stuff. But Kinect's webcam runs at a measly 320x240 pixel resolution—not enough to recognize individual fingers—so you can't aim your shot or apply things like top spin. As a result, I wound up in an endless table tennis game with a friend because neither of us could miss.
It's hard not to look at Kinect and already wonder when Microsoft will release an improved one in the future. But based on the fun I've already had and witnessed, I'd feel disingenuous to encourage anybody to wait that long.
Among the few friends who helped me test Kinect yesterday was a sick pal who started out uninterested in bouncing around the room. I dragged her on to a couple of low-intensity things, like Kinect Adventures' cute "use your hands and feet to plug leaks" mini-game; Kinect instantly recognized her and turned the game into a two-player affair without having to tap buttons or plug anything in. Afterward, she stepped away and watched me hop around like a hooligan, and she didn't look sick or bummed. She was either laughing at my bad dance moves, howling at the photos that the Xbox took of said dance moves, or finding herself intrigued by the ways the sensor's tech succeeded. Good medicine, this Kinect.