Kinect is finally here. Correction: The future is here
During our time with Kinect, the most prominent thought that we keep coming back to is 'This is the future'. Not just the future of gaming, and not just the future of motion control - this is the full-on, technology-advancing, awe-inspiring future, or "The Future" if you prefer. This is the kind of moment that is captured in history books for years to come, and future generations will have to know all about for school exams.
Okay, so we're not yet whizzing windows around an interactive touch-screen à la Minority Report, and we're certainly not about to head off to work in a hover-car, but the technology and the feel behind Kinect is simply staggering. Waggling a motion-control stick around is all well and good, but it cannot match the feeling of reaching out to the screen and selecting your required option just by holding your hand out, or watching a character on screen move in the exact same motion as yourself. There are a couple of sensitivity issues here and there, but these are easily forgiven.
This week: Kinect. Next week: Robots take over the world
The Kinect sensor bar features three separate devices - a camera, a depth sensor and a microphone - and these all work together to provide state-of-the-art spacial awareness for the hardware. The camera and depth sensor are able to capture the movement of a player, calculating not only where the player is in the room, but also where each of the player's body parts is. Put your right arm above your head, and Kinect will know that your right arm has moved, and where it has moved to.
The camera is also able to recognise different faces and facial expressions. The microphone works in unison to provide voice recognition capabilities, so Kinect will know who the player is, and will log you automatically into your Xbox profile when you walk into view. Just let that sink in for a moment. The hardware actually knows who you are, and can even adjust elements of a game on the fly depending on who walks into the shot.
If that's not enough for you, how about this - Xbox users can use Kinect for video chatting with other Kinect users, and if you get up and walk around the room, the unit will swivel on its base and follow you around the room, keeping you in shot and even zooming in on your face. It's like some sort of freakish Big Brother style camera watching your every move, and the first time you witness it in action, it will be impossible to contain your excitement.
Enough about the features - let's discuss the motion control. Waving at the Kinect unit will let it know that you're ready to take control, and a hand symbol pops up on screen. By moving your hand around in front of you, the hand on the screen will follow your movements - selecting options on the Dashboard and in-game is as easy as hovering over the appropriate area for a short moment.
The Kinect Dashboard is completely separate from the normal Xbox Dashboard - waving at the screen while the normal Dashboard is displayed will cause it to scurry off the screen and be replaced by the more Kinect-friendly selections. This screen is vaguely similar to the wii's main menu - boxes are set out in a grid, and extra options can be found by grabbing the arrow on the left or right and dragging it across your body.
Apart from hovering your hand over the different selections, there's also the option to simply say outloud the feature you're looking to boot up. Say 'Xbox', and a smaller menu will pop up at the bottom of the screen, providing a variety of follow-up keywords, such as 'Dashboard' - say this, and the normal Dashboard jumps back into view. Say instead 'Turn off', and the Xbox shuts itself down.
Thanks to the multi-array capabilities of the microphone, the unit picks up exactly what you say nine times out of ten, making for some incredibly satisfying menu navigation. It's particularly useful for when you're sat on the sofa and can't really be bothered to stand up and move your arms about - a quick shout of 'Last.fm' or 'Zune', and you've got music playing.
Kinect can also sense when someone else has walked into view, and even if the second person holds their hand out, the hardware will keep the original user firmly in control unless they decide to pass it on. Holding your left arm at a downwards 45 degree angle causes a symbol to appear, and eventually will quit out of menus and cancel a user's presence. It's initially a little difficult to get used to, but in no time at all we were providing this gesture without a second thought.
Kinect Sports does a great job of showing off the Kinect technology
On launch day, the Kinect will have thirteen games to choose from with several more added over the coming weeks. Initial impressions are a little cautious, thanks to the barrage of mini-game collections and fitness programs - however, while the Wii and the PlayStation Move featured half-hearted launch line-ups, Kinect is pinning the winner's badge to its chest.
It's not so much that the line-up is brimming with excellent titles - more that the technology feels so fantastic, that even the most average gaming experience is elevated to satisfying levels. Kinect Adventures, for example, comes free with the device, and shows off the technology beautifully via five minigames that are genuinely great fun to play. Holding your hands over cracks in a fish-tank; Moving your body into specific shapes to grab a line of coins; On paper it doesn't sound like much, yet in practice it's pure enjoyment all the way.
What Kinect really emphasises is how much trust past motion-control devices have put in us. When EA Sports Active on the Wii was asking you to do your daily squats, the game believed that you were doing them simply due to the Wii Remote moving up and down - yet you could quite easily have been sat on the sofa, a burger in one hand and the controller moving up and down in the other.
Kinect, however, knows where you are and what you're doing - no more of this waggling a controller in roughly the right area to progress! The new EA Sports Active 2 now watches you train, and knows if you're not doing those squats properly. Active 2 also does a great job of showing off the recognition technology - load up a friend's profile and begin training, and the game will stop you and say 'You're not the right person!'. Clever stuff indeed.
What about flaws, then. While the voice recognition is wonderful, it's also sometimes a little too sensitive. Have a conversation with somebody in the room while Kinect is loaded up, and the hardware may well pick up a word or two, translate it into a program on the Xbox, and randomly load up Sky Player or the like. This can obviously prove a little irritating, especially when you've got a few people over.
Kinect doesn't always handle extra people in the shot very well either, especially in the third-party titles. During the likes of Harry Potter and Sonic Riders, if another person so much as edges into the view of the camera on either side, the motion tracking will go haywire and become completely confused, only restoring control to the gamer once everyone else has moved back out of the shot. Titles such as Kinect Sports and Adventures don't appear to have these issues, however, which would suggest that it is third party developers who are not utilizing the hardware correctly.
The launch games aren't incredible, but the glorious tech easily makes up for it
Apart from these minor nuisances, we really had no other issues with Kinect that would not be classed as trivial. Kinect has won the motion-control race hands-down, and we're incredibly excited to see the reams of clever games and experiences that evolve from the technology over the coming years.
As far as we’re concerned, Kinect is the next true generation of gaming. It oozes style and finesse, and you haven’t experienced real motion-control gaming until you’ve stepped up and taken heed of the slogan ‘You are the controller’. Need more proof? With Kinect, you can make characters on screen do The Robot. Case closed.
TOP GAME MOMENT
When Kinect recognises you simply from facial and voice recognition. That’s freaky stuff right there.