We've become so familiar with the "Project Natal" codename over the years that our tongues are still having a little trouble wrapping around Microsoft's new Kinect moniker for it. Still, what's in a name? Microsoft has finally shown us what matters with real games, real gameplay, and real hardware, and after spending some time with it using our very own human flesh to control the on-screen action, we feel like we're starting to get a pretty good grip on the experience. Follow after the break as we break down the complicated workings and emergent gameplay of Kinect.

Hardware

Kinect combines a few detection mechanisms to build up a rather accurate and comprehensive amount of 3D data on what's going on inside a room. There's a color camera for taking pictures, recognizing faces, and so forth, but the real magic happens with the monochrome CMOS camera sensor that's paired up with an IR blaster. Microsoft calls this its "depth sensor," and the light and shadow of that image (lit by the human eye-invisible IR spectrum) is analyzed to build a 3D map of the objects within Kinect's field of view. Finally, there's a multi-array microphone setup to detect location of voices and to cancel out ambient noise, allowing for video chats without a headset.

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All of this sits atop a motorized tilting base of sorts. Microsoft hasn't gone into detail about the range of the motor, but when used in conjunction with skeletal and facial tracking, Kinect can pan and tilt to keep its sensors trained on you as you move around the room. One down side of the motorized base, however, along with the rest of the fairly complicated electronics, is that the Kinect hardware isn't tiny: it's about a hand's width tall, about as deep, and around a foot wide. When you think about it, the entire Wii occupies less cubic real estate. It shouldn't have much trouble squeezing in up in front of your LCD TV, but good luck trying to balance it on top, and we have no idea how folks who hang their TVs on the wall should approach this situation.

That motorized base also draws a good bit of power, so unless you have one of the brand new Xbox 360s, which include a special powered USB port, you'll have to plug Kinect into your wall as well as your 360.

One thing that Microsoft has actually left out of Kinect is a dedicated processor. The original plan was purportedly to have the Kinect pull its own load, allowing the Xbox 360's processors to run free in rendering games. In the interest of cost, however, the processor got cut and now the Xbox is taking a 10-15% processor hit. Reports are conflicting as to whether or not that's going to impact the sort of games that make it onto the system, but either way it pretty much rules out retrofitting older games for a new Kinect control scheme.

We've heard divergent reports on lag, but 100-150ms seems to be around where Kinect is playing (Sony claims a 22ms lag for PlayStation Move). During that time the system is tracking and processing 48 skeleton points in 3D space, watching up to two people, and repeating the process at around 30 fps.

Xbox Dashboard

While the main point of all this wild hardware and millions of dollars of Microsoft R&D is to play games, there's also a whole new Xbox UI that's enabled by Kinect. You wave your hand to dive into it from the regular Dashboard, and you're presented with a simple grid interface. There your hand is virtualized by a white dot floating around on the screen, which acts as a simple, accurate cursor. Hovering over icons pops out a bit of visual flare, and if you hover for a few seconds a timer fills up and that item is opened.

You can scroll between screenfuls of icons by hovering over to one of the sides and "sliding" a little widget over there. Microsoft isn't sure if it'll let you rearrange the tiles like you can on the Wii (or on any modern smartphone), but it would certainly be nice if we could.

One thing we haven't really seen much detail on is how the apps inside of the new Kinect Dashboard will work. The video and audio playback controls are fun, with the same side-swiping gesture to skip back and forth between tracks, and a scrubbing control with one of those Netflix-style thumbnail previews as you gently push the playhead back and forth with your hand. But as far as updating and browsing Facebook, or sorting through songs and playlists, we're still in the dark.

These gesture-based controls are nice and all, but our favorite part is actually the voice controls offered. You just say "Xbox" and then follow that up with your selection or playback command. It's simple, intuitive, and works even in a mildly noisy room.
Gallery | 28 Photos

E3 2010 - Kinect Interface preview



Gameplay

We've gesticulated wildly in front of a number of Kinect titles, and have some general takeaways. If you want specifics, hit up the links below. Basically, Kinect totally works, the lag isn't that bad, and the opportunities for using all this 3D data are fairly endless. Our favorite titles so far are Ubisoft's Your Shape and Harmonix's Dance Central. They're both titles that take genres that exist in their infancy on the Wii and take them to a whole other level of immersion and excellence. Very little of what you can do in these two games can be even approximated very well with either Sony's Move or Nintendo's Wii, and they speak well of Microsoft's tech and uniqueness in the space. We were less impressed, however, with titles that tackled more established genres. Kinect Sports, for instance, seemed like it suffered greatly without something to hold onto when miming actions, and while Joy Ride is a blast to play, the driving controls feel inferior in precision to even the tilt of a Wiimote (at least so far).

Basically, we see Kinect as very exciting for some new, emerging genres that can benefit from the full body scan, along with what are sure to be many new experiences from the ingenious industry Microsoft is banking on to make its product a success, but for many or perhaps most of the experiences that are already great with a gamepad or the Wiimote, we don't see what benefit we're going to be getting out of dropping the controller. Hopefully we're wrong in that assessment.

Oh, and word of warning for the lazies: not a single game we've been demoed so far can be played sitting down, although we've been assured you can operate the Dashboard without leaving the couch. There's also a real sweet spot within which Kinect can detect your movements most accurately -- too close to the TV and it might miss your kick, too far and you might fall out of its IR range.

Here are the games announced so far, with links to the ones we've written up:
Release

We were expecting two big pieces of info from Microsoft at E3, price and release date, but we only got one of them. The Kinect launches on November 4, almost two months after Sony's Move, but still in time for the holidays. Meanwhile, we're still in the dark about pricing. Somehow the $150 figure has been making the rounds (including supposed pre-order pages from Gamestop and Amazon), but we don't know how that got started or if it's going to stick. There's almost a feeling that Microsoft had a price set for Kinect, but then changed its mind and is perhaps still figuring it out as we speak. One thing's for certain, Sony's Move will put some pricing pressure on at $99 with the Eye Toy, controller and game if Microsoft's Kinect comes out at $150, even though Microsoft's price will represent the total cost of the system: no second, third, or fourth controllers required.

Further reading

Hit up our Kinect hub for the latest posts, video, and pretty charts.