Sunday, November 7, 2010

This thing called Kinect

Well, it required playing "the Birthday card" but not only did I score the new RB3 stuff last week but I was able to convince my Wife that I needed Kinect and a game or two for it this week...

She picked it up for me yesterday, and we got it all set up. We played for about 3 hours last night, then I played again with the kids this morning for another half hour before work. You definitely get a little bit of a work out if you are not a very active person, and I've got sore and stiff muscles today to show for it.

The Tech
Set up was easy, although you're gonna need a good sized room. You NEED to be 6-10 feet away from the sensor, esp if you want to play two players. If your living room is small... forget it.

Assuming you have the space, set up is simple, You plug it in, run a calibration thing for the room (takes about 10 min) and you are ready to go. The crazy thing is... how quickly it works.

Xbox Kinect User Interface (UI)
To be honest, the thing I was most excited about with Kinect wasn't the games, but the voice and gesture control of X-box media. This works well and doesn't require flailing, however it is much more limited than I had hoped. Let's break it down...

User recognition: The thing can easily be tweaked to log in different players by gamer tag just by waving your hand. I wave: "Hi Red Toof", my wife waves "Hi Total Fan Girl", my daughter waves "Hi Ladybug", even while we all three are standing in front of it. Pretty slick.

Navigation: Your hand is the mouse, just move your hand, the cursor on the screen moves, hold it in one spot long enough and 'click' you select it. This works much better than the Wii control system, which requires some fiddling to make sure you get your controller's angle correct relative to the position of the light bar. No such problem with the Kinect, all movement is judged relative to the position of your body. So if I, a 6' 3" adult male standing on the left side of the living room, move my arm from left to right, the cursor moves just as far on the screen as when my 4' tall 6 year old daughter makes the same gesture over on the right side of the living room.

When you think about what's going on here, and the kinds of calculations that must be happening behind the scenes, it's pretty amazing. At least for a tech guy like me. It takes a bit of getting used to, but you definitely get the feeling that this is a giant step in a new direction for humans to interact with machines.

Still, I was a little disappointed with the limits of the UI. Not all features of the Xbox work with Kinect, Netflix being the most notable one. So while you can verbally pause a Zune video, you can't do the same with a Netflix video or a video you are streaming from the PC. Obviously there's no technical limit here, it's just Microsoft hasn't gotten to it yet. So hopefully that will come in a future dashboard update.

The other disappointment has to do with the "hover to click" paradigm. Move your hand over a button, a little timer circle spins around the 'mouse pointer' and poof, you've clicked it. The problem is, this limits your rate of clicking, and therefore the speed of navigation.

But this, again, is not a limit of the tech, but rather a design choice by developers. For example, in Dance Central, the new Kinect dance game from Harmonix, navigation with your hand is fast and intuitive. Move your right hand up and down to scroll the menu, when you find what you like slid it from left to right and 'click' it is selected. After a few songs you;ll find you can navigate the game just as efficiently as if you had a controller.

Basically, this is a brand new way to interact with with technology, REALLY bleeding edge stuff. The engineers who designed and built the Kinect have given developers an amazing tool. But because it is such a new way to think it is going to take time and iterations for the software guys to come up with refined, reliable interfaces.

So while the Kinect Xbox UI works, and is fun to play with, I'm not sure it is practical...yet. But that's only software, which can and will be updated. And as different game developers experiment with different Kinect navigation techniques everyone will learn and adopt the control patterns which work best. Not unlike how the games Halo and Call of Duty have refined patterns for FPS controls on a controller.

So Kinect's not ready for prime time yet? Well, I didn't say that. The tech guy inside of me wanted to see the UI, but I'm also a gamer and a dad. Is this the family game experience in the commercials? It turns out that yes... yes it is.

We ended up with two titles on launch day: Kinect Adventures (which is bundled with the Kinect) and Dance Central. Picking which games to buy when a new system launches is always tricky business, but since Dance Central is by Harmonix, the makers of the most played game in our household, Rockband, we figured it was a safe bet.

Adventures is the game you see in the commercials: The bouncing balls, rafting, etc. This was the first game we fired up, and my two girls (ages 6 and 8) gave it a try. At first they were bouncing and flailing so much that I wasn't sure how much the sensor was working vs just random events happening. All I did know was that there was a lot of smiling, giggling and laughing going on, and they seemed to be enjoying it.

Then the adults had a turn. The kids stepped out, we stepped in, and it just kept working. We also discovered that it really does track your movements very accurately. Not once did I feel the game was 'missing' my moves. Instead I just felt I wasn't fast enough and kept practicing.

The tech guy in me was constantly astounded that my wife could step out, and my six year old could step in and play with me. The game seamlessly handled the fact that one of us was 4' tall and the other was 6'.

Kinect Adventures is not a deep title, but it does good job of showing the potential of the device. After seeing the kind of precision the Kinect can achieve I'm looking forward to trying Kinect Sports for some deeper 'casual' game play.

Dance Central
Dance games aren't new, but a dance game that can analyze all aspects of your body's motion and critique you as you try to match real dance choreography is very cool. Playing it I felt the same sort of excitement when I first picked up a plastic Guitar Hero guitar. Something about it is just fun and rewarding at the same time.

It's a fantastic implementation and a great use of the Kinect sensor. It's also a great party game as long as you're with folks you don't mind looking a bit silly with. Players can seamlessly dance along with the lead dancer and even switch who is the lead dancer in mid song.

All of Harmonix's signature style is here: Fun characters, a great song list, exceptional tutorial modes, polish and fun. Watching my wife and two girls dance in sync to Lady Gaga's Poker Face was one of those awesome "aww how cute" moments that only parents truly appreciate. It's also a surprisingly good little aerobic activity if you keep the songs coming fast and furious. Even my 8 year old who regularly takes gymnastics and taekwondo had broken into a sweat after 40 minutes of non-stop activity.

Dance Central may just be the 'killer app' for the Kinect. Just as Rockband was able to get music lovers to drop hundreds of dollars on specialized peripherals, fans of dancing may be willing buy a Kinect just for this dancing game.


My first evening with Kinect was a lot of fun and more than a little bit tiring, but in a good way. Like after a game of racquetball. You know you've been active, but you don't realize how much until after it's over. And it definitely left me wanting more.

The user interface for media shows potential, but it also feels a bit like v1.0 software. It doesn't feel like a cheap gimmick or a fad, but rather a genuine attempt to improve the way we interact with a console. And as such it is clearly a step in the right the direction.

The Nintendo Wii proved that there is a market for casual games that get players off the couch. However once you start working with the Wiimote you discover that it doesn't truly capture your body motion. It is an illusion based on capturing the movement of two small objects.

While this can be fun, I always felt I was discovering the limits of what the Wii could do every time I tried a game. I could almost see how the developers were trying to code around these limits and try to provide the illusion that it analyzed something like your dance performance when really it is grading how well you move a rod in the air.

Kinect, on the other hand, feels as if the potential of the sensor is nearly limitless, and that the developers have only scratched the surface of what is possible.

I very much hope the Kinect is a commercial success. This will encourage Microsoft to refine the interface further and make the navigation portion work exactly like we all dream. It really is very close to this lofty goal, and I've no doubt it can be done now that I've seen how much has already been achieved.

Success would also mean more developers and therefore more brilliant minds working with the system. This always leads to amazing innovation, which I, for one, can't wait to see. But until then...I've got some dancing to do.


  1. To funny Russ cutting the rug thats one big monkey dance Congratulations you won!good read!

  2. And as it's now Tuesday, I can attest to the fact that Dad and kids are still playing every morning and loving it! Only complaint from me about the Kinect...all that jumping around is making the pictures on my walls all crooked :)

  3. Picked it up but with the baby stuff going on haven't had a chance to set it up. Looking forward to it.

  4. The Jetson age is approaching. Still waiting on the flying cars, but check out this company that's making the pneumatic tube elevators...