And just like that, all three of the major game consoles now have some semblance of motion controls. Unlike the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation Move, however, Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360 opts to get rid of buttons altogether, relying on body gestures and voice commands. As the (estimated to be $500 million) ad campaign says, "you are the controller" -- for better and for worse. Read on for our full review!
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Kinect for Xbox 360 review

Microsoft

Kinect

Pros

  • Powerful technology
  • Voice commands really work
  • Yoga, dance games show real potential

Cons

  • Requires lots of room space
  • Launch lineup could be better
  • Hand gesture UI can be very slow
Summary





History lesson

We were first tipped off to Microsoft's motion-packed future via a May 2009 leak that's held up pretty well, in retrospect. It was just a month later, at the company's E3 press conference, that the sensor then known as Project Natal made its official debut. We've been playing it in various stages of development ever since, so much so that by the time the original 3D breakout title made it into the bundled Kinect Adventures title (c.f. Rallyball), we were already pretty burned out on it.

All the pieces started falling into place in June 2010, when Microsoft ceremoniously unveiled the final name (that's "Kinect," if you weren't paying attention) and its November 4th release date. The requisite Engadget Show appearance came later that month, and less than 30 days after that, we were told the final price ($149 standalone, $299 with 4G Xbox 360). So, here we are.
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E3 2010: Kinect in the flesh!



Out of the box

Microsoft isn't straying from the packaging aesthetic it uses for Xbox 360, with arguably the biggest differentiator being a slit in the cardboard for Kinect Adventures to go (the retail package is covered by another thin layer of cardboard and ads that keep the game in place). Opening the top flap reveals a very purple interior, Kinect's color choice (as further demonstrated by the DVD cases for all motion titles). Behind the sensor itself, there are a handful of pamphlets, a USB extension cable, and an AC adapter for using Kinect with older Xbox 360 models (more on that later).

The Kinect sensor itself is very glossy, on par with the new Xbox 360 look -- which means dust and fingerprints will settle in on the surface just nicely. The motorized stand tilts the sensor vertically for calibration, and to us felt mighty sturdy. Looking at the front, you'll see a green LED light when powered on, and three cameras. The one in the middle is the "RGB camera," as Microsoft prefers to call it -- as earlier listings have indicated, it's likely 640 x 480, 32-bit color at 30fps. The outer pair are the depth sensors, which according to Microsoft "combine an infrared projector to allow Kinect to see the room in 3D under many lighting conditions." (We were told that darker rooms would work better, and in near pitch-black testings, tracking did improve, at the cost of the RGB camera seeing virtually nothing. There's a common ground.) A quartet of microphones are used to detect what's being said and approximately from where in the room.
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Kinect for Xbox 360 unboxing



Then there's the "special sauce," as Microsoft calls it -- the software that takes all this information and parses through it for skeletal mapping and facial / voice recognition. That's software-driven and requires a bit of processing power reserved for the Kinect, but as we heard, it's pretty minimal. The only portion of significance, as we were told, was a 60MB (of 512MB total for the Xbox 360) memory footprint reserved specifically for the motion sensor. That's a fixed amount that can't be lowered, so do us a favor, developers, and make the most of it.

Setup / calibration

If you own a new Xbox 360, all you need to do is plug in via the dedicated Kinect port in the back, just above the ethernet cable. For older models, the AC adapter provides power while also extended a USB input for plugging in via the back port. For those with a WiFi dongle, Microsoft's suggesting you use that packaged USB extender and plug your wireless connection into one of the front two ports.

As you'll be reminded at least once every game, Kinect recommends (and at times requires) that you be six to eight feet away from the sensor while in play, with no coffee table or ottoman in your way. This isn't exactly the easiest setup to obtain, especially in apartments and dormitories. We set up the Kinect in multiple locations, and none of them were quite right -- we moved couches, twisted the TV diagonally, even pushed back the sensor a few inches to maximize as much space as possible. Point is, the six feet isn't just a recommendation, it's pretty much a requirement.

Whenever you turn on the Xbox 360, Kinect will do what it can to detect human life, and in doing so will use its motorized vertical tilt to get said individuals into the frame as much as possible. If it's the first time using the device, you'll be prompted to calibrate the audio. It takes several minutes, but you'll definitely want to endure -- in essence, it's learning what audio will be ambient / coming from the television (and therefore can be ignored) versus your own vocal cord vibrations. It's how you'd be able to, theoretically, watch a video of someone sternly screaming "Xbox" and the Kinect sensor never mistaking it for a voice command.

If you need to set up the play space, there's a "smiley face" calibration card, of sorts, that comes bundled with Kinect Adventures and a handful of other games. Assuming lighting conditions are ideal -- not too bright (presumably for the infrared), not too dim for the webcam to detect anything -- you'll be walking forwards and backwards a lot as you try to line up the card with on-screen glasses. Seriously.

Lastly, there's calibrating your Avatar ID, and this is where we think Microsoft is just having a laugh at our expense. If you want to be automatically signed in whenever you walk in front of the Kinect sensor, you'll be asked to move around the play space and lineup with a series of grids while simultaneously doing various arm poses reminiscent of antiquated dance routines (the robot arm slump, the disco finger point, and so on). Far be it from us to ask, but we hope this isn't some plan from Redmond to secretly record us in the goofiest poses possible.

Menu navigation

If you're going to be the controller replacement, you'd hope the menu system would be tailored for ease of use and efficiency, right? Unfortunately, that's not exactly the case here. The Kinect dashboard can be navigated two ways, through either voice or hand gestures, though both have their limitations. Let's start with hand gestures; from a standing position, simply motion the icon to hover over the menu item you want to select from. Only catch is, that can take a couple seconds. A physical annoyance, sure, but it's also a painful reminder that pushing a button is so much quicker and more convenient. Lead Software Dev Alex Kipman tells us the hover selection time was picked after "hundreds of hours of playtesting," which we don't doubt -- we just don't agree with. Half of the launch titles we played with managed to find alternate methods (or use quicker hover periods) that worked much better.
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Kinect for Xbox 360 dashboard and navigation



The universal pause gesture. Get used to this one: place your right hand down at your side and raise your left hand, palm out, 45 degrees outward from your side -- then wait a few seconds. This will pull up the Xbox guide in dashboard, and a special pause menu for every Kinect title. We guess this one's a necessary evil -- after all, you need a way to pause that isn't going to produce false positives and accidentally activate when you're playing. That said, if you're in a clutch position and have to step away, take our advice and keep a gamepad handy for quickly jamming on the guide button to pause.

Voice is a different beast altogether, and while it's limited in function from time-to-time, it works very well. From any menu, simply shout "Xbox" -- even when watching a fairly loud program, so long as it's calibrated to ignore that noise -- and you'll see a menu pull up that suggests all the commands you can shout. You can even have your friend join in, saying every other word -- it should work, with some margin of error. We've been impressed with our time using it, even when navigating though video. We just wish there were more options, but that's really a software issue, and Microsoft is pretty adamant about evolving this functionality as time goes on.

As we discussed in our Dashboard Preview from last month, Microsoft added Kinect functionality to ESPN, Last.fm, and Zune. What's great is that the gesture controls work while sitting -- at least for other people we talked to. Perhaps it was our lighting situation, but the gestures were pretty finicky when seated. Our Joystiq brethren were able to just fine, so we'll trust their input that it's not a fundamental concern (as many had previously thought), but consider yourself forewarned. The good news is, even if hand waving isn't optimal, ESPN can be navigated entirely in voice commands. A shame we can't say the same for the other two services, as voice search doesn't exist (no, you can't even shout individual letters, the functionality just isn't there).

Games

Along with our Kinect sensor, Microsoft provided us with six titles to play around with. We'll leave it to our good friends at Joystiq for the more in-depth reviews; here's our brief impressions:

Kinect Adventures

Let's start with the bundled title, seeing as this will likely be the first (and in some instance the only) Kinect experience for gamers. For all intents and purposes, Adventures is your requisite pack of minigames meant to give a taste of the "body as controller" experience, under the guise of a jungle theme. And for that, it does a pretty good job. There's five games in all, each with some multiplayer component, including River Rush and the aforementioned Rallyball. It's a party game at its core, so don't expect a lot of replay value beyond showing your friends for the occasional round. (Joystiq review)

Dance Central

A crowd favorite. The Rock Band gurus at Harmonix have made a rhythm game that's, well, Rock Band for choreographed dance. It's the kind of thing that really highlights what Kinect can do -- track your movement, actually teach you dance, and provide all the embarrassment you ever asked for. We had a lot of fun with this one, despite it continually punishing us for misaligned arm movements and the occasional confusion as to which foot we step out with first. Additionally, its menu navigation -- using horizontal swipes to select from a vertical list of options -- is super fast and worked with only a few mistaken selections on our part. (Joystiq review)

Your Shape: Fitness Evolved

Ubisoft's exercise game is the other great example of Kinect's potential. The menu system feels fast (despite using the hovering technique), your on-screen avatar is eerily accurate (some amalgamation of your infrared position and your monochrome visage -- if you're wearing a collard shirt, it'll show the buttons), and the skeletal mapping is added to the equation as another check to how accurately you're maintaining proper Tai Chi positions -- yes, it'll deduct points for not bending your knees as low as the virtual instructor demands. There's also a handful of games, full lesson plans, and yes, it keeps track of your progress. (Joystiq review)

Kinectimals

Something of a pet simulator with a much heavier focus on minigames, its utterly cute art style and character design can't mask the aggravation of trying to throw a virtual toy pig into totem polls and having the game non-intuitively launch the projectile out of your hands too early or too late. It's one of those times where we wish it either detected finger movements or let us push a button instead. We suspect we're not exactly the target audience, but even so, the pacing is mighty slow and the on-screen narrator (some flying half-raccoon creature) will grate on more than a few people's nerves. Still, kudos for implementing a smart horizontal swipe mechanic for sifting through lists, and for tracking your body position and moving the camera accordingly (e.g. for scratching your little tiger friend on his back and side and... okay, it really is adorable). (Joystiq review)

Kinect Sports

If Kinect Adventures is the equivalent of Wii Sports Resort, Kinect Sports is just plain Wii Sports -- and we don't say that in a good way. Games like bowling felt inaccurate in the same way Kinectimals had an "underhanded throw" issue, and table tennis has a huge amount of leeway in how you swing -- on numerous occasions, a forehand in real life would turn into a backhand in order to make the on-screen shot. Additionally, for whatever reason, the sensor had a hard time keeping track of our hand, violently shaking the cursor despite our relatively-still position in lighting conditions that were fine for other titles. If there is such a thing as an inherent yearning for motion-controlled party gaming, the already-bundled Kinect Adventure should more than fill that void. (Joystiq review)

Kinect Joy Ride

It's a racing game that requires you to stand up, which is sure to frustrate a number of people to begin with. The menu system also seems to suffer from the same detection glitches as Kinect Sports (see above). There's just not a lot of depth when you consider this is a $50 title, and the steering mechanic at times seemed a little off with what our bodies were doing. (Joystiq review)
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Kinect for Xbox 360 launch titles



Kinect Video

You have a VGA camera and a powerful multi-array mic -- video chat's kind of a no-brainer, at this point. We're happy to say this part works great -- once you get connected, that is. Like we said before, the sensor still isn't too fond of us sitting down, with lighting conditions seeming to be the biggest culprit in our inability to gesture our hands. Thankfully, you have some options to use a controller here. We chatted up Joystiq's Justin McElroy for a few minutes, with the Kinect sensor tracking his head and body as he performed a ritual dance for us (if you could call it dancing). Even just for audio, using the Kinect as a mic (with smart noise cancellation) decidedly beats wearing a headset any day.

Wrap-up

We can't help but quote our Google TV review here: "It's always hard to review version 1.0 of a platform -- it's tempting to give concept and potential nearly as much weight as execution." The Kinect as hardware is great, but there's plenty of room for software engineers and UI designers to improve. And speaking of room, if you're worried about cramped space, you might want to get a measuring tape before shelling out $149. Former Microsoft exec Robbie Bach called the Kinect a "midlife kicker" for Xbox 360, so you can bet the company will continue to pool resources into improving the experience for a good while (and hopefully the Dashboard is pretty high on that list of to-do's).

The comparison everyone wants to make -- including Microsoft and Sony themselves -- is how Kinect stacks up against the Move. By the numbers, picking up Move starter bundle and an extra controller is the same price, and in that setup you also get a two-player experience. Move's Sports Champions is arguably a stronger bundled title compared to Kinect Adventures. But really, we feel like both systems -- along with Nintendo and the Wii -- are just taking a different approach to the same issue. Where does interaction go next? How do you bring it to the living room? Back to the Kinect, though: we think there's some fighting spirit inside that glossy shell, but it's definitely got a lot of growing up to do first.