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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 4, 2010 at 11:05 AM

Xbox Kinect review: fun, futuristic, a little creepy

Today’s column in the paper is a review of Microsoft’s Kinect. It follows a Monday story focused on project lead Alex Kipman, the Brazilian who code-named the system Project Natal after the city where he used to spend summers.

kinect sensor.jpg

(The stories were staggered in part because Microsoft, as part of its hyper structured launch program, wouldn’t provide test gear to news organizations unless they promised to hold reviews until 9 p.m. Wednesday or midnight eastern time, when the consoles first went on sale. Oprah and Ellen didn’t count.)

The review, with some photos added:

Sometimes the intense sights and sounds of modern video games stay with you, like scenes from a great movie.

Microsoft’s radical new Kinect controller for the Xbox 360 stays with you, as well.

After you’re done hopping and waving in front of the TV screen, long-forgotten muscles will remind you of the fun you had with the $150 gadget.

Kinect is a remarkable device that makes video games more physical than ever before.

It’s also a thrilling and slightly creepy glimpse into the near future, when we’ll be surrounded by sensors that make computers easier to use but that also see, hear and track our lives.

After nearly two years of hype and speculation, Kinect goes on sale Thursday for $150. It’s being released globally with a marketing blitz that will make the election seem quiet.

Microsoft is upbeat about Kinect’s prospects. Based on store orders and consumer surveys, it raised its sales forecast Wednesday to 5 million units, up from 3 million. If that pans out, the company will sell perhaps $1 billion worth of Kinect systems and games by the end of the year.

What buyers get out of Kinect will depend on what they ask of the system.

People will love it if they just want a fun, new way to play family-friendly games – or do exercise routines – that require little to no use of conventional game controllers.

Kinectsoccer3.jpg

But people expecting Kinect to replace their home entertainment system’s remote control with voice and gesture commands may write it off as an ambitious first attempt.

When playing games or using programs in the Xbox 360’s special Kinect menu, its voice and gesture controls work surprisingly well. There are 17 games available at launch, including the outdoor-themed “Kinect Adventures” game that comes with the controller.

The biggest concern in my older Seattle house was making room to play Kinect games, which require at least 6 feet of clear space in front of the TV, where the Kinect sensor sits. Moving a coffee table barely created enough space in my living room. Executives I talked to were sensitive about the space issue, saying they tested Kinect to be sure it worked in small homes in Japan and New York City, but the ideal setting is clearly a big, suburban rec room.

Kinect controls work well enough that you can get frustrated when you’re required to return to the standard Xbox controller to do something like change a setting. The transitions are a reminder that although Kinect is polished and functional, it’s still advanced technology that’s limited to programs that have been carefully designed to work with it.

This raises the question of whether the Kinect makes the Xbox “controller-free.” It’s not there yet. But when you’re in the Kinect realm, it’s a leap beyond Nintendo’s Wii, which still requires you to press various buttons.

There are a few standard gestures you use frequently with Kinect.

You’ll wave your hand side to side to wake the device.

To pause any game or program, you hold your left arm up a bit, as if you’re pointing to something on the floor to your left. To “click” a button on the screen, you hold your hand in a fixed position for a few seconds.

To navigate through screens, you scroll by sliding your hand sideways.

For voice control, you bark “Xbox” and then tell it to play, pause or stop music or video playing through the console.

If you go through a sort of digital fingerprinting process (pictured below), standing at different angles while it scans your face and body, Kinect will recognize you and log you in automatically when you step into its gaze.

KinectID.jpg

These controls give you a taste of the future in how we’ll control TVs and computers within a few years. They work pretty well, but because they’re limited to only a few places in the Xbox realm, they feel more like a trick or a tech demo than a transformation of your entertainment system.

For example, it’s fun to say “next” or “shuffle” and have the Zune media player on the Xbox change songs. But then you expect to be able to use voice commands to search for songs or artists. Maybe that will come later, but for now you have to use a tedious gestural keyboard – hovering and waving over each letter – or pick up the Xbox controller and return to 2010. (Available voice commands are visible at the bottom of the screen here)

kinect-zune commands.jpg

Where Kinect shines is in games. Each starts with a quick tutorial, and you’ll soon stop paying attention to the interface. At least that was my experience.

“Kinect Adventures” – the bundled game – has enough variety and challenge that families stretching to buy Kinect won’t have to purchase an additional game right away. It includes a polished version of the dodgeball game that Microsoft has been using to demonstrate Kinect since mid-2009. It also has the other showcase, “River Rush,” in which you lean and jump to control a river raft.

kinect-aquarium.jpg

Of special interest to Dutch boys will be “20,000 Leaks,” an adventure inside an underwater aquarium. Colorful fish smash into the glass, creating leaks that you plug by moving your hands, feet and body over the holes.

The muscle pain came mostly from testing Ubisoft’s “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.” After an airport-grade body scan, the game leads you through personalized workouts with your body appearing alongside animated instructors.

If I had to buy one additional game with the system, I’d choose “Kinect Sports,” which includes soccer, volleyball, bowling, pingpong, boxing and track-and-field games. It’s refreshing to be able to play sports video games without memorizing button sequences to make different moves. Soccer and track also take place in a stadium that looks a lot like Seattle’s Qwest Field, with one end open toward a city of skyscrapers. But it’s almost worth $50 just for an opening sequence that lets you control the cheering crowd, leading “The wave” with your arms and launching fireworks by pointing to the sky.

Families with young children will beeline to “Kinectimals,” a $50 game that lets you “pet” and play with cubs – tiger, lion, cheetah and more – by moving your hands in front of the controller. (It’s shown in a Microsoft demo video below)

It’s not cheap entertainment, especially if you don’t yet own an Xbox 360. Kinect bundles with a console cost $300 to $400.

But the 42 million households that already have an Xbox will know it’s the same price as a new game and two extra controllers.

U.S. consumers expect to spend an average of $232 on electronic gifts this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

The group’s latest survey found laptop computers, iPads and e-readers are higher on holiday wish lists than video-game systems. I’ll bet those priorities will change after people see Kinect, as long as no major glitches surface and Microsoft keeps improving what’s a pretty exciting new technology.

Comments | More in Reviews | Topics: Gadgets & products, Games & entertainment, Kinect

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