"You are the controller. No gadgets, no gizmos -- just you!"
That's what Microsoft is promising with Kinect, its new motion-sensing camera for Xbox 360. It's a device that Microsoft says will change the way we interact with not only games and entertainment, but with each other.
We've had a chance to see it behind closed doors at public industry events like E3. But what happens when you take it out of a controlled environment and into a real-world setting? I spent the past week and a half jumping, waving, and shouting as I put Kinect to the test in my very own living room.
“You are the controller. No gadgets, no gizmos -- just you!”
That’s what Microsoft is promising with Kinect, its new motion-sensing camera for Xbox 360. It’s a device that Microsoft says will change the way we interact with not only games and entertainment, but with each other.
We’ve had a chance to see it behind closed doors at public industry events like E3. But what happens when you take it out of a controlled environment and into a real-world setting? I spent the past week and a half jumping, waving, and shouting as I put Kinect to the test in my very own living room.
It’s easy to become the controller… well, mostly
If you have one of the newer, smaller Xbox 360 S systems, setting up Kinect is simple. There’s an orange AUX port on the back of the console, and you plug in the orange-tipped cord attached to Kinect right into it. Provided you have the latest Xbox Live dashboard update, the console will recognize the sensor, and you’ll soon be ready to go.
With older consoles, things aren’t quite so easy. Because Kinect requires power it can’t get from a standard USB port, you’re going to need to plug it into an outlet. You’ll do this by using a splitter cable that divides itself into a plug and a USB cord that plugs into your console. If you’re using a network adapter, be prepared to have to wrap around one of the USB cables (the sensor ships with a short extender) to the front of the console. The result is an unsightly mess of wires, and a setup that’s not quite as elegant as it is with the newer console.
With either product, though, setting up the sensor with your room is fairly easy and only takes a few minutes. The console will guide you through the process, which, ironically, requires the use of a controller. The sensor and the Xbox 360 will then determine the average level of background noise in your room (for voice commands) and get a general idea of how much play space it’s working with. It’s a fairly boring but quick process; below is a video of what it looks like, for those interested.
Seven feet is the new six feet (or: Gamer selling one couch, one coffee table - Best Offer)
Microsoft claims that six feet of space between you and the Kinect sensor is the minimum distance for playing single-player games, and that’s mostly true. In my personal space, that’s almost exactly what I have, down to the inch. All of the games I tested (with some exceptions within a few titles) were playable without problems, although you should note that whatever is limiting your space (a couch, a wall) is going to make you feel incredibly cramped while playing many of the games, which require movement in almost all directions.
With that said, the eight feet recommended (and necessary) for playing two-player titles is certainly more comfortable, even when you’re playing alone. More reasonably, if you want to comfortably play most of games, consider making seven feet of space your “minimum.”
With that in mind, folks who have smaller living rooms or live in small spaces (tiny apartments, dorm rooms) are mostly out of luck here. Kinect’s documentation, and even one of the loading screens in Kinect Adventures, recommends moving furniture to play, which is a bit of an unreasonable demand for most gamers. If you have these kinds of restrictions, keep that in mind when considering a purchase, because it’s likely not going to work within your space.
There are a few tricks you can use to “get more space,” one of which is placement -- putting it up higher, perhaps above your television set, will give the camera a wider field of view. The result is a few extra inches, which may be the difference between playing Dance Central and fighting to get your money back from a retailer with a strict return policy. The sensor won’t sit comfortably on top of most flat-screen televisions, since it has a wide base and a motor that tilts up and down; Microsoft and third parties will be selling stands and mounts, if you’re looking to go this route.
The face of terror that will calibrate your nightmares
Every Kinect game you purchase will come with a “Sensor Calibration Card,” which is this… thing. It’s supposed to be happy, but there’s something discomforting about it. Check out how you’ll use the card to calibrate your space in the video below.
Wave “hello” to the new Kinect Hub
Once you’re all set up and ready to go, it’s easy to ditch the controller -- simply wave. While the Xbox 360 will boot to the dashboard by default, Kinect attached to the console or not, you can’t actually navigate those menus with the sensor. The dashboard still requires a controller, and Microsoft has created a completely new and separate section of the console, the “Kinect Hub.”
Once in the hub, you can (mostly) drop your controller and start using simple gestures and voice commands to navigate through menus and programs. Once Kinect recognizes that you’re there, you just hold your hand up to move an on-screen cursor over on-screen objects. To select something, you simply hold your hand over it for a few moments. Navigating screens is easy and fun, too, done by holding your hand up to either the right or left and simply “swiping” over. I found this to be responsive and definitely more engaging than simply using a D-pad or analog stick to browse menus.
Voice commands turn your 360 into an obedient dog
Over the past week since using Kinect, I’ve felt like I’m constantly yelling at my Xbox. I feel kind of bad for it. It’s always “Xbox!” this and “Xbox!” that, as I use voice commands to do everything the console will let me do. Because the fact is, I actually liked navigating menus more with my voice than with my hands.
They’re easy to do, with almost all commands prefaced with the word “Xbox.” You don’t need to be particularly careful with your commands, either. If you’re looking to pause a movie you’re watching, you don’t need to take a beat or two between the words “Xbox” and “pause.” A smooth “Xbox pause” will usually do. I found my results were the best once I started trusting the system. Booting up the console and then saying “Xbox Kinect Hub, Xbox Last.fm, Xbox play” all in one smooth motion had me listening to tracks in no time, and I didn’t need to dig out a controller.
Unsure of what commands you can use? Simply saying “Xbox” will bring up a menu showing you the commands, or highlighting icons on the screen and telling you what to say in order to choose them.
The voice stuff works surprisingly well, with Kinect’s four microphones doing a decent job of canceling out noise it doesn’t “need,” including sounds coming out of your speaker system or television. Sitting with my babbling baby daughter in my lap, I was able to execute a number of commands like pausing movies, or skipping tracks on Last.fm or my Zune playlist. I found this especially helpful when doing chores around the house and listening to music, casually calling out to my Xbox to stop or skip a track.
In most cases, speaking conversationally to the Xbox 360 would trigger the commands just fine. But there were a number of instances where I had to repeat commands, and it was unclear as to why. Sometimes it would miss a command I spoke at a normal tone, and other times when I talked too loudly or softly. Repeating the command a second time would usually to do the trick, and it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me personally, as it didn’t happen all that often.
Starting up… still starting up…
I actually really enjoy navigating my console with gestures and voice commands, but that comes with a caveat -- I don’t like how everything seems to take twice as long to set up or load.
Every time you boot up your console, the system will dump you to the main dashboard, where you can immediately start using an Xbox 360 controller to navigate. If you want to use Kinect, you’re going to have to wait about 10 to 15 seconds for the sensor to initialize. While this may seen minor, it often feels like a million years considering that you could have probably been signed into your console and starting up a game within that time had you used a standard controller.
This extends to a lot of what you’ll do on Kinect Hub, too. In order to select items, you’ll hover over them and then have to wait a few seconds for it to select. These few seconds were chosen for obvious reasons -- you wouldn’t want to accidentally select something, would you? The time it takes to select things isn’t a negotiable option on your console, either. Microsoft’s Director of Incubation, Alex Kipman, tells me studies were done to find that sweet spot for getting the timing just right, and I have no reason not to believe him. It’s definitely a bit annoying having to wait the first few times, but you do get used it.
Still, like with having to wait for the initial setup, gamers like myself who are used to getting that instant gratification may find they’d rather just keep a controller nearby.
So nice to see you again! Wait, who are you again?
“Kinect ID” is another new feature made possible with the sensor, one that’s supposed to recognize players as they sit in front of the camera and then sign them in. In theory, this is great -- simply sitting down in front of the console and having it greet you is a very cool proposition. The good news is that when it works, it’s very convenient. But when it doesn’t, it’s extremely aggravating, and that seemed to be more often than not.
Microsoft recommends running the Kinect ID setup in a number of situations -- morning, noon, night, with the lights on, with the lights off, wearing glasses even if you wear contacts… the list goes on. The problem is that even after performing setup in half a dozen situations, Kinect only was able to identify me only a little more than half the time. It also takes a while for the sensor to either identify or fail to identify you; by that time, I’ve already manually signed in using voice or hand gestures.
Let there be light… or not, Kinect doesn’t seem to care
Those worried about low-light situations needn’t worry; Kinect seems to deal with dim lighting just fine. In fact, Kinect appears to deal with all brightnesses (or lack thereof) just fine, whether it’s with my ceiling-high windows letting in the sun, or having all of the lights off and watching a movie in the dark. It’s not suggested that you shine a spotlight on you or your Kinect sensor, but real-world, normal lighting situations really don’t seem to affect performance.
Sayonara, classic remote control?
I was particularly excited about using gestures and voice commands to control my media, as I find myself turning on my Xbox 360 to do stuff outside of gaming (like watch movies or listen to music) quite often. But with this option comes some good and some bad, leaving me on the fence as to whether I should ditch my controller when watching a flick or rocking a party with tunes.
Voice commands work well in these situations, with “Xbox” plus “Pause,” “Stop,” “Fast Forward,” etc. all working well, even with a movie’s sound turned up to a reasonable level. As I mentioned earlier, the commands work the majority of the time, but when they don’t, it can be frustrating.
Gesture commands, on the other hand, are cool -- you just wave at the Xbox to bring up the hand icon -- but come with their own set of problems. Once hand gestures are activated (they can be used to scrub a film’s timeline, or simply pause or start a video), you’d hope Kinect would be smart enough to only pick up on intentional gestures. But if you’ve just started up a movie using your hand, be careful when you sit back -- any movement of your hand or arm might accidentally get picked up and bring up the cursor. In fact, while sitting down on my couch and eating a bowl of ice cream, raising the spoon to my mouth nearly stopped one video altogether before I realized what was happening.
It’s confusion like that which had me wishing Kinect wasn’t watching, and that I just had a remote control sitting by my side. The voice and gesture stuff is cool, and I’ll probably find myself using it in limited situations. Still, it definitely needs a bit more tweaking before unseating the traditional remote control (or an Xbox 360 controller as one) from its throne.
Netflix, where art thou?
Netflix streaming on my Xbox 360 has drastically changed the way I watch movies, and how often I watch them. That is to say, I use it all the time. So it’s disappointing to find out that Netflix for Xbox 360 was not adapted for use with Kinect, so my dream of starting, stopping, and fast-forwarding a streaming season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been crushed. It’s a ridiculous oversight, and I’m sure it’s one that many folks purchasing Kinect will be unhappy to learn. If you’re interested in navigating video with Kinect, your only real option here is Zune. You won’t even be able to navigate your own content via network or if you’ve put files on a USB stick.
The Kinect Guide -- kill it with fire!
You know the Xbox Guide, the one that pops up when you hit the center button on your controller and gives you access to your friends list and other options? Well, Kinect has one, too -- it’s accessed by keeping your right hand down and putting your left arm out at an angle (this is also how you pause all Kinect games) -- and it’s hideous.
While the updated Xbox Live brought a sleek new dashboard and a matching Kinect Hub, the Kinect Guide looks like it was designed by cavemen. It honestly looks and feels like very little thought was put into this thing, with boxy menus and muted colors that make it look like a “standard-definition” mess. To get to nearly anything in the menu, you have to hover over and wait to access a seemingly endless trail of menus, each as putrid as the next.
The Kinect Guide also features fewer available options than the standard guide, so if you’re looking to do anything beyond view your friends list (and send voice messages), see your Achievements, or tune your Kinect sensor, you’re out of luck. I mostly put up with it because I’m lazy (the controller was so far away!), and I had to for testing purposes, but I’ll definitely be keeping a controller near me to access the actual Xbox Guide.
Staying connected with Video Kinect
Video Kinect… it’s video chat on your Xbox 360 using the Kinect camera. If you have a laptop, there’s already a webcam built into it, most likely, so this might not seem like such a huge deal. But putting it into perspective, I can see how a family connecting with faraway grandparents, all huddled around the couch, would be appealing.
The Kinect camera is also smart, and will track you as you move left or right, so you don’t need to sit still while having a conversation; it could theoretically follow you around the whole room. The camera also will zoom in if there’s one person in frame, and zoom out if it detects multiple people, which is pretty neat. The software works when used Xbox 360 to Xbox 360, and even Xbox 360 to PC, too.
I caught up with Reviews Editor Jim Sterling using Video Kinect. Check it out below to see it in action.
The lag factor, and why it didn’t matter
It’s going to come up, so I might as well address it. Everyone wants to know how much lag there is between your gestures and what happens on the screen. We’ve seen the videos where the lag is obviously perceivable, and we’ve even had folks pulling out calculators and counting frames.
Here’s the thing: I won’t lie and say there isn’t discernable lag. There is. It’s definitely there, and it’s mostly noticeable when moving a cursor around a screen, giving it a “floaty feel.” But when it comes to usability and even gameplay, this discrepancy is negligible; there was never a time when I felt a true disconnect between what I was doing and what was happening on the screen.
I’m not going to count how many nanoseconds’ difference there is between when I move my hand and when my on-screen Avatar waves. Some will, and there’s going to be a lot of back-and-forth about how awful (or not awful) it is, I’m positive of it. But if developers write software in smart ways, this discordance will be irrelevant, and fortunately that’s the case for most of the games I’ve tested.
It’s all about the games, but are they any good?
Kinect launches today with a handful of games, many of which I’ve been playing over the past week. Is there anything worth getting, or is it all launch garbage? Check out the games I managed to review so far. (More will be added soon. If there are two words to describe the launch lineup, they’d be “physically exhausting.”)
So, can you throw out all of your controllers yet?
Not quite. I was definitely more impressed by the Kinect hardware (and the software) than I imagined I would be. But I’m not ready to champion Kinect as the death knell for controller-based gaming, and I’m not sure I ever will be. When it comes to the games themselves, I’m a bit concerned that the lack of a physical controller will really limit the type of gaming experiences we’ll see. (Will we get any games that aren’t on rails?)
Then again, I’m also not ready to write off Kinect, either. When it works, it’s certainly impressive, and it’s an fascinating glimpse at what the future of entertainment and games could hold.
[Note: We won’t be assigning a score to this review like we normally do games. Kinect games, however, were scored on an individual basis.]