Kinect review: The hardware and experience

First presented to the world as Project Natal at E3 2009, Microsoft's Kinect sensor peripheral has since been positioned by the software (and hardware) giant as the next phase of Xbox 360's evolution as a platform. A combination of hardware and software, it's been billed as a means for users to interact with their consoles and play games without using a physical controller, using natural gestures, voice commands and face recognition.

I've had a final retail Kinect unit at home for a little over a week now, and have had ample time to put the shiny new gadget through its paces. Is it as magical as expected? Will it transform gaming? Or, more importantly, does it even work? Read on past the break for my in-depth review of this ambitious apparatus.

The Hardware

Kinect is a single piece of hardware, yet it incorporates several distinct technologies. There's an infrared emitter that floods your play space with invisible light, paired with a CMOS sensor that then looks at how it's reflected back and passes that data to the console -- as a grayscale image -- so that it can determine the depth of the scene, most importantly your movement in 3D space. Then there's an RGB camera that's used for facial recognition, in-game snapshots and video chat. The sensor contains four capsule microphones that, in combination with an audio processor, can "pinpoint" your voice, picking it out from background noise and even determine which direction it's coming from. Finally, there's a tilt motor, which automatically move the sensor up and down depending on the current user's height and distance from it.
The first thing you'll notice out of the box is how light it is -- the heaviest aspect of the sensor is its base, which, along with the overall size of the unit, makes it unsuitable to place on top of most flatscreen televisions (there's an official mounting bracket from PDP being sold for this express purpose). The unit is sleek, glossy black and clearly designed in line with the aesthetic of the Xbox 360-S console. Overall, it feels well-made and is quite unobtrusive when placed above or below your television.

Owners of the "old" 360 console will connect the, er, Kinect via a USB cable, which itself attaches to a splitter leading to a power supply necessary to give the sensor the extra juice required for the tilt motor. If you own the Xbox 360-S ("slim"), it simply gets plugged into the expansion port on the back of the console. The cable is terminated with a custom USB connector that is shaped in such a way that you can't insert it into a normal USB port.

One of Microsoft's goals with Kinect has been minimizing the amount of hardware required to play games and interact with the console. With that in mind, that's really all there is to the peripheral from a tangible standpoint; it's a bar that sits near your TV and never needs to be touched.

The Setup

Like I said, once you've gotten the Kinect sensor out of the box, you simply place it above or below your television (no higher than 6 feet and no lower than 2 feet), plug it in, and turn on your Xbox 360. The rest of the process is all done in software.

The frames of the glasses I wear are too reflective for the Kinect sensor to handle. They basically brought it to its knees.

When booting up the 360 for the first time after connecting the sensor, you're greeted with a screen "welcoming you" to Kinect and serving as the starting point for the guided setup. Through a series of subsequent screens, the 360 listens for background noise, creates an acoustic "map" of your room and adjusts its tilt so you're properly framed. That's the gist of it. There's what's called the Kinect Tuner, which is accessible from the Kinect Hub (more on that in a moment) and from within every Kinect game. It can be used to manually adjust the sensor tilt, re-run the audio setup if you're having trouble with the voice recognition and "fine tune" Kinect for your play space using a funny-looking calibration card that's included with every game.

Mostly, though, you don't have to fiddle with much to get the sensor up-and-running. The basic setup process is brief and user-friendly -- to be expected given Kinect's target audience of, well, everyone.

There is another stage to setting up Kinect, though. It's for what's called Kinect ID, which is the mechanism by which the sensor recognizes you and signs you in automatically. This process is started from the Kinect Hub once everything's already working, and involves posing for the sensor at various spots in your play space, with your arms held in position to match a copy of your Avatar on screen. You can see your Avatar moving in real time, almost like a puppet, which is admittedly pretty neat. Depending on the size of the play area, it'll ask you to move onto one of a number of grid squares displayed on screen and then hold your pose.

The whole process should take most people a couple of minutes and it's recommended that you repeat it in different lighting conditions / at different times of the day. I said "most people" because that wasn't my experience.

The first time I ran Kinect ID, it took about 20 minutes. I was constantly being prompted to keep my face visible and, several times, had to dismiss a warning that the sensor couldn't see my face at all. When it was finished, my console could not recognize me when I stood in front of it and waved (the gesture used to tell it you want to start using gestural input).

I was puzzled by the situation. The Kinect ID process was obviously taking far longer than intended and basically wasn't working in the end. I tried a variety of what I thought would be potential solutions; I turned on more lights, made sure there wasn't anything totally blocking the sensor's view (I was standing behind my rather large, very heavy glass-and-metal coffee able at times to be far enough away for the process) and even slicked back my hair so it wouldn't cover my forehead. None of this worked.

As it turned out, removing my glasses was the fix. I performed the Kinect ID setup again and sped through it in a flash. The console recognized me. All was well. Except for the fact that I need my glasses to see, and didn't really care to take them off every time I wanted to be recognized. I tried things again wearing an older pair of glasses that had a thinner, matte metal frames. Kinect was fine with them. My conclusion: the frames of the glasses I wear on a daily basis are too reflective for the Kinect sensor to handle, basically bringing the system to its knees.

The Experience

My first experience with Kinect, glasses issue aside, was "Hey, cool, the cursor on the screen is following my hand." It's neat and kind of weird. I tried voice commands and they worked, even with music playing in the background and while speaking in a casual tone.

Then I tried playing games.


Kinect game manuals suggest that you stand at least 7 feet away from the sensor, or 9 feet if you want a second player to join in. 7 feet for me is in the middle of my aforementioned behemoth of a coffee table. 9 feet is right in front of my couch. I live in a house and have what I'd consider to be a "spacious" living room. I moved the coffee table and all was good. But having to do that was not a tick in the plus column for Kinect.

Now, my story ended happily. I can move and jump around and the sensor doesn't gripe at all. My girlfriend can hop in and play without issue.

But that's not the case for my fellow Joystiq editor Justin McElroy, who has also been testing a retail Kinect unit pre-launch. Given his living room setup, he's barely in the "frame," and two-player is out of the question.

Kinect demands a lot of space.

I have to put this bluntly: If you don't have at least 8 feet of unobstructed space between where you plan to place the sensor and the limit of how far back you can stand, Kinect will just not work right. Placing it on top of your television will give you an extra foot or so, but still, those who live in apartments, plan to use Kinect in a bedroom, or otherwise have "unconventional" living room layouts are, for all intents and purposes, screwed.

This should be a true deal-breaker for many who've been considering getting a Kinect. Believe me -- measure your play space. Not enough room? It won't work properly. Still want to take a chance? Be sure to keep the receipt.

So, how about when it does work, as was my case?

I found that the Kinect Hub, which is brought up by either waving your hand while on the "classic" Xbox 360 Dashboard or saying "Xbox Kinect" is functional, but, if anything, requires far more effort to perform the most simple tasks than simply using a controller and the regular Dashboard. Here's the problem: In order to select something, you have to hover your hand over it for a three-count. Then, there's a delay as an extremely simplified version of, say, your friends list comes up. Navigating further into the menus is just as slow, as is navigating back out.

Even exiting using the "guide gesture" -- holding your right arm straight down and your left arm out at a 45-degree angle -- just brings up the Kinect Guide, which requires more slow-poke selecting of options to get out of.

Voice Control
You may be thinking, "But Randy, can't I just say 'Xbox Kinect hub' from wherever I'm at and have it take me there?" The answer is "no." In what is a baffling design decision, you can use your voice to get into the Kinect Hub's menus, but not back out. I asked a Microsoft rep about this dumbfounding issue and was told that it may be fixed in a future update. From my experience, there's a lot of fixing to be done, so I won't be holding my breath.

Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should. - Dr. Ian Malcolm


So, sure, I can say "Xbox, open tray" to open the disc tray -- but only if there's nothing in it. Basically, the vocabulary or interacting with Kinect is not as broad as it should be. This, too, can be upgraded my Microsoft, but at launch it's nevertheless disappointing.

Using the Kinect-enabled versions of the ESPN, Last.fm and Zune apps is just as clunky and slow as navigating the Kinect Hub's menus. There's a novelty to telling the Xbox to pause a movie, and some utility in asking it to skip to the next song, but the apps are pared down and often offer only one means of interaction. In some cases, you can only use gestures. In others, only voice commands. It's frustratingly inconsistent.

For those interested in Video Kinect, it works well, even tracking you as you move closer or walk around the room -- that is pretty neat. But it's just video chat.

Oh, and Netflix does not support Kinect gesture or voice control.

The verdict is still out on using gestures to control the Kinect Hub and supported applications while seated. Although I didn't have any problems, Justin reported that, for him, it only works maybe half of the time. Our friends at Engadget have met with similar difficulty getting it to work -- and it's supposed to.

The pack-in: Kinect Adventures

Since it's bundled with the Kinect hardware, we opted not to review Kinect Adventures because, well, you can't not get it. Justin did play it extensively, however, and offers these thoughts:

Kinect Adventures is included in the bundle, and with good reason. All five of the included game modes are designed to show off the whole-body approach Kinect takes to gaming, like "20,000 Leaks," which has you plugging holes in a submerged tank by contorting your hands feet and head into just the right spot to cover each crack. Adventures has a charming habit of snapping pics at inopportune moments and then displaying them in a dignity-crushing slideshow after each round. While these minigames may not be the deepest, they're a great way of demonstrating what the Kinect has over the Wii.

It's the same point being rammed home by the better-than-you'd expect soundtrack and clever Indiana Jones-meets-Kim Possible vibe that kids should really gravitate towards. Although players may have seen motion control on Wii before, Adventures won't let players forget that it likely wasn't looking this good.

Adventures isn't just a good calling card for the system mechanically and aesthetically, it's ethically representative. Kinect is about getting up and getting the blood pumping, and that's exactly what you can expect from Adventures, which will leave you out of breath at the end of challenges, more often than not. This is not a game to unwind with.

The only real complaint I had -- that I only had space to accommodate one player -- is really more of a comment on the Kinect hardware, as Randy already alluded to earlier.

The Verdict

For all the talk of revolutionizing the Xbox 360 experience and making gaming more natural/ accessible, it's bordering on absurd how broken Kinect is when it comes to something as simple as working in your home. I find the technology itself fascinating, but the fact that I know a lot of people who simply won't get Kinect to work in their rooms beyond troubling. Given that Microsoft conducted a beta program with actual consumers, this issue is doubly surprising, but it could just be that Kinect just works that way (or doesn't, given your room) and there's no way short of redesigning the sensor to fix it.

If Kinect does work for you, congratulations: you have what amounts -- for now -- to a novelty peripheral that is in no way geared towards the day-one buyer or "core" gamer. Microsoft conceived a potential game-changer with Project Natal, it just seems like Kinect was born prematurely.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.