First there was a year of hype surrounding Project Natal, but the reality that is Microsoft Kinect has been in my family home for a week now. Everyone from my 10 year old daughter to my retired mother-in-law have played with it, so what's the verdict? Is this the future of motion control gaming or just a flawed imitation of the Nintendo Wii?
Let's start at the beginning with what Kinect is not: it's most certainly not a Wii, nor a PlayStation Move for that matter, as it takes a quite different and truly unique approach to the whole motion control gaming genre. You will have seen the television ads by now, and if you haven't don't tell Microsoft or the marketing executives might burst into tears considering the half a billion dollar advertising budget, and so should be fed up to the back teeth with the 'you are the controller' message. Truth be told, though, that really does sum up the Kinect. A surprisingly bulky but not bad looking (if you are into vaguely robotic design) device containing a depth sensor (more precisely an infrared projector combined with a monochrome CMOS sensor that enables Kinect to 'see' the room in 3-D rather than inferring the same from a 2-D image) and RGB VGA camera (for enabling facial recognition) both with a 640 x 480 resolution, a multi-array microphone and some brilliantly inventive circuitry which allows it to understand and map distance and motion within a truly 3D space. When Microsoft says you are the controller it does not just mean a hand, or rather what that hand is holding, but actually all of you, as in your entire body and that includes your voice.
The Kinect sensor really is an innovative hardware device, not because of the components per se but rather the combination of those components. It should come as little surprise to anyone with the faintest understanding of technological innovation that within a few days of the Kinect sensor going on sale it had been reverse engineered and open source drivers made available so that robotics engineers and hardware hackers alike could start to use it for their own purposes. Never before has a sensor which can not only do all this, but do it so well and do it at such a low price (relatively speaking) been available.
Forgive me for getting just a tad over excited about all this, but to be able to control a piece of computing kit just by waving or pointing at it is cool enough, but for it to be able to recognise voice commands in real time and in a real environment where other people are talking, music is playing and life is continuing is nothing short of miraculous. Voice recognition really very clever indeed, as not only can it recognise commands in a family environment with all the background noise that entails (not to mention in game noises of course) but it responds to them with hardly any errors. It would be nice if you could do everything via voice, including turning the Xbox off, but the first time anyone commands the console to 'open tray' or navigate the Kinect dashboard really is a magic moment as they watch it just work without any of the expected voice training. Forget the gaming for a moment, the Kinect shines a light in the direction that Microsoft computing will travel in the years to come methinks. This is, indeed, miraculous in Star Trek proportions: Xbox, open tray. Should I really be so hyped at being able to do that? Oh, and to add to the Star Trek/robotic feel of it all, Kinect has a motorized base so that it tilts up and down as you switch the Xbox on and it checks out where you are. Cool, cool, cool. Almost as cool as switching your Xbox on and having Kinect automatically recognise whoever is standing in front of it and sign them in without any input from the user.
Which brings me to the first big problem, or should that more properly be small problem, that seems to be hitting those who live in small houses. To work effectively the Kinect sensor requires around six feet of clear space between it and you for single player games, and eight feet if a friend wants to join in. In the US this probably won't be too problematical as home square footage is generous on the whole. In Europe houses are smaller on average, hence the complaints. Now my living room is not massive by any means, however because the design is such that the furniture is at the periphery (sofas along the walls, TV on one end wall, no coffee tables to get in the way) I have enough room for two players without hassle. Some of my friends have discovered that a bit of furniture rearranging is required before the Kinect will work, and bedroom play is generally a no no. So you do no need to measure available space before investing in Kinect. If you do, then setting it up is intuitive and takes but a few minutes of standing still, moving about and doing what you are told on screen.
Assuming you have space though, does it actually work? There are plenty of detractors and Microsoft bashers who have complained of terrible lag between motion and motion being sensed and an action happening in a game. To which I can only say that I have now played half a dozen different games and not experienced any noticeable lag apart from in the boxing bit of Kinect Sports, and that is easily dealt with by not acting like you have just had 10,000 Volts shot through you and boxing a little bit slower and more purposefully instead. Seriously, I can honestly say that lag is simply not an issue. If it were I would be shouting at the top of my lungs as I hate laggy gaming, it is guaranteed to turn me off.
So, I think you can probably guess by now that the hardware has won me over and I think it is better than either the Wii or the PlayStation Move. I reckon the Kinect will become the trend setter as far as motion sensor gaming is concerned. Sure, some of the launch games are pretty rubbish and the Wii certainly has the better games (as you would expect given the maturity of the console) but in my opinion it is the Kinect that holds all the promise. I say this based on a weekend where numerous gamers and non-gamers alike 'popped in' to see the Kinect in action. Everyone, and I mean everyone from the 10 and 12 year olds through to the middle-aged women and even a couple of seniors, was simply blown away by the Kinect gaming experience. It may not sound like much of a big deal, but until you have actually tried motion gaming without the inconvenience of holding a controller of some sort you just cannot imagine the joy this freedom provides. Seriously, even a truly hardened Wii fan was impressed enough to declare "I'm buying one, it's awesome" and that's without many good games right now.
Not that the Kinect is as bereft of games as some reviewers and naysayers might have you believe. Dance Central is, quite honestly, the best dance format game on any platform and that includes those dance games on the Wii. The ability of Kinect to track what your arms as well as your legs are doing makes all the difference. My wife is a former professional dancer, albeit classical Russian ballet rather than disco, and she absolutely loved it. In a similar way, Your Shape - Fitness Evolved is also somewhat genre defining in as far as it can monitor and track your movements much more accurately than the competition and, of course, there are no peripherals (think balance board) required. By tracking more than a million 'dots' on your body to following the precise angle of your joints, the Kinect does a far better job of ensuring you are exercising correctly than relying upon measuring the acceleration of a Wiimote. Your Shape is more deserving of the title virtual personal trainer than 'fitness game' which is where the likes of Wii Fit currently sit.
Kinect Sports is not as polished as Wii Sports, but the rough edges are soon forgotten thanks to the sheer movement of the game. This is no hold a Wiimote and wave it around a bit game, this is a full on throw that javelin, jump that hurdle and kick that football immersive experience. Even the much maligned boxing is thumping good fun, and the lag is not so bad that it spoils the game. Sure, if you wave your arms around like you've been connected to the mains supply then Kinect may have trouble keeping up, but if you play the game by choosing when to throe your punches for maximum effect there is little to complain about.
Hardcore gamers might poo poo the notion of a motion controller which has no place in the Halo or Call of Duty universes, but my teenage Halo and CoD mad son is already hooked. "Tell people that it's horses for courses Dad" he says, adding "of course you can't play Halo with the Kinect but there's huge fun to be had nonetheless". My ten year old daughter meanwhile, who wants to be a vet when she grows up, has been captivated since launch by Kinectimals which is actually probably the most rounded Kinect game of all so far. It enables players to 'adopt' a number of baby big cats which can be stroked, tickled, fed, watered and played with. The visuals are glorious and the immersion superb. I defy anyone not to fall in love with their adopted panther or tiger or lion from the first moment it responds to your voice, your expression, your actions. The mini-games are fun, and the development teams sense of humour shines through: my daughter has unlocked a remote control Halo Warthog and Halo Ghost for her adopted cat to ride around, for example. If the virtual realism required confirmation, then Harry and Hermione (the real life family cats here) provide it: whenever this game is on they both sit staring at the TV screen, following the on-screen cat wherever it goes, responding to the purrs and growls.
Oh, and let's not forget the additional stuff such as Kinect video conferencing between users over Xbox Live or Windows Live Messenger that automatically tracks your movement and allows for additional content such as weather, for example, to be displayed to all parties on screen. yes, it's just video chat but it is well implemented and like everything else about Kinect it just works and works well.