Revisiting Kinect

Just over one year after Xbox One launched, I’ve only recently realized something…

I’m sad that people are using Xbox One without a Kinect attached because they are missing out.

I’ve a consumer of gaming products for years. Decades, in fact. A quick walk down memory lane.

I remember…

…being pitched a motion sensing controller and how much more fun gaming would be because of it. I scoffed. Was it the Wii? No. It was Microsoft’s Sidewinder motion sensor controller from 1998. And I was right: that gamepad didn’t add much of anything to the game play. It took the Wii almost 8 years later to make motion influenced gaming worthwhile.

…being pitched a voice command driven gaming and how much more intuitive it would be to use voice in gaming. I honestly bought into this one, because I thought it would be awesome… like being able to fire at an enemy on screen without taking the time to reach for a far off button. Was it Kinect? No. It was Echelon, a space fighting simulator from 1987. It was for the Commodore 64 and came with a headset that plugged into the joystick port. And I was wrong: the voice commands weren’t fun because it turns out that they didn’t voice commands at all… if I blew across the mic – instead of saying Fire! – it would trigger the missiles. I learned this because it was so freakin’ annoying to keep saying Fire!Fire!Fire! over a gaming session. It wasn’t until Kinect that voice recognition was brought to gaming with a variety of commands that made it a viable input method.

…being pitched virtual reality gaming and how much more engaging it would be to put yourself in the game. I was mixed on this because I had worn glasses for years so I didn’t know if it would work for me or not. Was the pitch for Oculus Rift? No. It was Virtuality, a mall based arcade that specialized in VR experiences around 1991. Put on a visor, hold a joystick of sorts, and go shoot polygons. It was… interesting, but it wasn’t going to show up in my house anytime soon and the game play was as bad as Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace with Atari 5200 quality graphics. It’s not going to be until Oculus or Morpheous goes mainstream – with games created to target the experience – that this will be worthwhile and awesome.

…being pitched multiplayer gaming over networks and how much more fun it would be. I bought into this one too. Was it broadband on the Dreamcast or Heretic over IPX/SPX that made me think it would be good? No, it was going back to RTS game Empire on Color64 BBS’s and interactive live gaming on QuantumLink – both for the Commodore 64 using a 300 baud modem – in 1986. And they were right. Year over year, gaming has just gotten better and better when playing online, even when you take griefers or asshats into the equation. They were there in the 80’s; it’s no surprise that they’re still here in the 10’s. It takes a full on enforcement team – Xbox LIVE’s team that started in 2002 and working for us ever since – to keep things fair and non-annoying for people just looking to play online.

Given the above, it shows that sometimes you just need another go-around of something before it becomes good. Like a V2 of something before it becomes good. Really good. Like “I don’t know how I lived without this” good. Or as it’s been in our house, talking to the TiVo and being mad that it doesn’t listen to me, because Kinect for Xbox One has been that good in our house.

Kinect on the 360 promised a lot and it put up a strong showing. It allowed me to take control of the Dashboard with gesture, voice, and controller – I’ve used all three at one point or another. It brought a games that were fun to play but none of them left a hugely lasting impression on me. Kinect Sports stands out – much like how Wii Sports stands out for Nintendo – in my memory because it leveraged my existing interest of sports that I already had. Over the last week or two, Jolene has prodded me into taking another look at the games on Kinect – ‘chievos! – in a hope that [our two year old son] Kyle would be interested in playing or even watching them, like he does Forza Horizon 2 and PvZ:GW.

Sadly, Kinect was a miss for Kyle. I played Disneyland for him and he liked watching that well enough. I pet a bunch of cats and bears and he was OK with that too, but that was less exciting for him. What’s the missing things? There’s two things actually… one is that the 360 Kinect just doesn’t see him. Even if I could get him to stand still and wait to be scanned, he’s just too short for Kinect to see him. The other is the games themselves. Some do a great job of jumping into action quickly, where they dump you in the game play so you can start flailing immediately. Other games have long sections of story mode and they simply don’t need it. Kinectimals did this, which is a shame. I want to interact with the animals – I don’t want the back story of how pirates did blah blah blah. Kyle looked bored with it too.

At home this weekend, I downloaded the Fantasia demo for the One. I had played around with Kinect Sports Rivals when that first launched and it was OK but much like Kinect Sports for 360 and Wii Sports did: played it for a bit and moved on. After five minutes of game play in Fantasia, I was reminded at just how amazing having solid tech and great software can make a game fun.

Fantasia is basically Guitar Conductor Hero. I know that doesn’t sound fun, but that’s why they put out a demo. I’m convinced of this. The music is well selected and it makes you want to move in front of the screen and start waving to the music. It sucks you in immediately. While working through the tutorial, I noticed that they have a version of you on screen, as Kinect sees you. Get this: Kinect can see your fingers and react to what they are doing. I could see my hand open and close or point with a single finger. At some point I backed out to Home and was flinging the UI around by grabbing it and moving back and forth around. We then brought up the newly updated Media Player and starting browsing videos that were being shared by my machine upstairs. We have all of Kyle’s videos that we’ve recored and have them labeled in the file system… I said “xbox select” and all of the text on screen went green. If it’s green I can say it so I said “2012 Bellevue botanical gardens”. And the fsckin’ thing opened. The built in voice recognition is even more amazing this generation. A short time later, that Jolene walked back into the room and the One responded by signing her in, since it recognized her. I noticed that Kyle wasn’t added to the console – he’s been a LIVE member since the weekend after he came home from the hospital – and told Kinect to find him…

Now, when Kyle walks into the room Kinect recognizes him and automatically signs him into LIVE.

The original Kinect was impressive… with that, I started walking out my living room with “xbox pause” even if I was watching live TV on TiVo. I played a couple of games that got me off the couch for a couple of minutes and I used it to animate my avatar in chat from time to time.

The second Kinect is flat out amazing. It takes all of the things that the original did pretty well and makes it flawless. I can grab things, since it sees my hands. I can put my arms behind me and the Kinect sees that too. It’s voice recognition just works with whatever I’ve sent at it. The games that are coming out now have almost flawless body recognition and the games are making use of it in ways that I never would have thought would be fun…

And then… then I realized that a contingent of the gaming community have opted to leave it in the box. Maybe because they tried the original and “knew” what it would be like even though they couldn’t know. Maybe they dipped into the tinfoil hat crowd and didn’t want it because of “spying scares” (even thought people clamored for “xbox on” when the Kinect launched in 2010 and it’s an optional feature for One.) Maybe the don’t want to set it up because its “too hard.”

I feel sad that people are missing out on some of the most amazing technology that they already have in their homes.


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