Kinect Hardware Review
When Microsoft’s Kinect sensor was first shown at E3 last year (then called Project Natal), few could believe it. Some couldn’t believe what an unprecedented and revolutionary leap in game control it was. Others literally couldn’t believe it because the first videos were, colloquially speaking, simulated and pre-rendered bullshit. The truth, now that Kinect is here, is somewhere between extremes. But whatever you think of Kinect, know this: it actually works.
The big reveal showed a raft of incredible features. The entire body could be tracked in 3D space to enable complete immersion in game environments. Objects and images in real life could be scanned into games for immediate and practical use. The 360 dashboard could be intuitively navigated with voice and body. More strangely, a player’s subtle physical and verbal idiosyncrasies could be recognised and understood, enabling automatic log-ins and...sinister liaisons with virtual young boys?
With such fantastical and odd applications, it’s no wonder people were (and still are) unsure about it. In practice though, Kinect is not so much sinister as absolutely magical. Setting up the device for the first time is a joy in itself, as you follow the on-screen prompts to move and pose in your playing space (which you’ll need a reasonable amount of, by the way). As soon as you see your wire-frame skeleton moving on screen, mapped over live video, the realisation hits that this was never a trick after all.
You’ll try to test its limits, and they are there of course. Turning your back is enough to confuse it, as is joining your hands or crossing your legs. Essentially, obscuring the definition of the human frame is sometimes going to make it freak out a little. This is to be expected though, taking into account the sheer achievement of tracking and interpreting your movements in real time. And when you’re not trying to break it, it performs staggeringly well.
It can indeed recognise individuals from one another (given the opportunity to see them in different lighting conditions). Most importantly, it can also mirror your movements surprisingly quickly, despite widespread concerns of latency prior to release. Again, there are limits, but if it’s not quite seamless to spectators, it’s certainly quick enough to become virtually imperceptible during use. This remains consistent when a second player joins in, and even stands the test of online play.
Speaking of play, I mentioned Kinect’s raft of features earlier on; how about a literal raft? You’ll find one in Kinect Adventures, the bundled game that parallels Wii Sports as a torch-bearer for its host hardware. In one of the title’s most iconic mini-games, your avatar stands in a dinghy, hurtling through rapids crammed with obstacles and ramps. It sounds silly and ephemeral, but in practice shows the platform’s deep potential.
Jumping and side-stepping determines your direction in broad sweeps, showing off Kinect’s awareness of 3D space – this is much more than the Wii remote’s vague gesturing, and making full use of the space around you really counts. However, it’s only when you play it for yourself that you can appreciate the subtleties of control; simply leaning slightly effects fine adjustment to positioning and direction. Such accuracy is quite unexpected, and it’s this nuanced implementation that makes the biggest promises for Kinect as a standard interface, rather than a novelty.
Despite the promise, it’s important to remember that Kinect is as much software as hardware. Many of the features originally shown are not here yet – dashboard browsing (both verbal and gestural control) is limited to a separate Kinect interface, relegating the friends list and achievements to invasively large tabs and omitting all aspects of the marketplace entirely. It’s not yet quite as integrated into the standard 360 experience as we were told it would be, but it’s expected that this will develop over time.
When it comes to the games, it’s going to take a lot of work for developers to make natural interfaces that justify using the technology. It’s already clear that Kinect only understands what it’s told to expect, and requires the software to interpret and guess where joypad inputs would provide comfortable certainty. Be prepared for a rash of games that are limited to a handful of unnatural gestures initially, but over time and with experience and careful attention, the best developers will find their feet (and indeed control games with them).
The worry is that many developers might eschew the challenge and opt for the easier option in next-generation motion control. PlayStation’s Move controller builds on the Wii’s established philosophy, adding increased accuracy and camera functionality to the now commonplace handheld device. The appeal of this is obvious, with proven control mechanisms easily transferred for reduced risk (and potentially smaller investment).
The early sales of each device will be critical to garnering support from developers, and thankfully it’s looking promising so far for Kinect with one million units sold in the first ten days. Although it’s no sell-out, that’s a strong commercial start that should ensure developer confidence. The eventual result will hopefully be new experiences not possible with Sony’s more conservative technology, although it remains to be seen whether or not Move can offer more consistent results due to its simpler tracking systems.
Dismissing commercial concerns, Kinect certainly has the legs to grow into a genuinely new and exciting platform for gaming. There is much from the initial previews that is still not here, but true to Microsoft’s form, Kinect is very much focused on a relatively skeletal feature set that will develop over time. The journey has just started, and while we have a good feel for what the technology can do, we’re yet to find out exactly what it’s for. The question now is whether we have the imagination to dismiss Kinect’s risks for its opportunities.