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

November 5, 2010 at 10:36 AM

Xbox Kinect’s not racist, but media can’t resist the story

I hate having to write about this sort of thing, but some people are clinging to the debunked story that Microsoft’s Kinect doesn’t recognize black people.

Pack journalists and blogs gleefully jumped on the non-story, rushing to report a racial issue where there isn’t one. It’s all about clicks, right?

The story began when posted an item Wednesday saying one of its “dark-skinned” employees was recognized “inconsistently” by Kinect and it was unable to “properly identify the other despite repeated calibration attempts.”

“However, Kinect had no problems identifying a third dark-skinned GameSpot employee, recognizing his face after a single calibration. Lighter-skinned employees were also consistently picked up on the first try,” the site reported.

Remember, Kinect is basically a really fancy camera that constantly shoots and analyzes images of players.

This gets to two obvious facts that are being spun and woven into a huge, raggedy shroud obscuring what’s really happening.

Fact one: When you take pictures of people, you get different results depending on lighting conditions and skin tones. Sometimes it’s trickier than others.

Fact two: Kinect is sensitive to lighting conditions and not absolutely precise.

Fortunately, Kinect primarily relies on skeletal tracking to play games and for most of its controls. It tracks 48 points on the skeleton. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is — as long as you have a skeleton that moves, you’ll be able to play the games.

After the GameSpot story appeared, it was quickly debunked by Consumer Reports.

Unlike GameSpot, Consumer Reports explained its testing and posted a video of testing with black and white players.

The magazine noted that Kinect is affected by light levels and advised people to provide plenty of light in the room where it’s used.

Consumer Reports said lighting conditions also affected the performance of an HP webcam that caused a similar stir. From its report:

The log-in problem is related to low-level lighting and not directly to players’ skin color. Like the HP webcam, the Kinect camera needs enough light and contrast to determine features in a person’s face before it can perform software recognition and log someone into the game console automatically.

Essentially, the Kinect recognized both players at light levels typically used in living rooms at night and failed to recognize both players when the lights were turned down lower. So far, we did not experience any instance where one player was recognized and the other wasn’t under the same lighting conditions.

This problem didn’t prevent anyone who was affected from playing Kinect games, since it can “see” and track players’ bodies and motions using a built-in infrared lighting system.

Consumer Reports isn’t the only media outlet that didn’t see a racial issue with Kinect.

Oprah raved about the system on her show a few weeks ago, and the New York Times’ Seth Schiesel gave Kinect a glowing review, even though it sometimes takes a few tries to activate a control.

“Does the system recognize every voice command exactly the first time? Of course not. But it works consistently enough that I never wanted to reach for those relics of the past: a plastic controller or remote control,” wrote Schiesel, who is black.

Microsoft finally weighed in with a response to GameSpot:

“Kinect works with people of all skin tones. And just like a camera, optimal lighting is best. Anyone experiencing issues with facial recognition should adjust their lighting settings, as instructed in the Kinect Tuner.”

Microsoft could also reassure people that they can get their money back if the system doesn’t work for them.

The situation highlights the varying performance of Kinect’s facial recognition system. It missed me a few times in late afternoon when the light changed in my living room. The system advises you to rescan your face at different times of day to optimize its recognition, but I didn’t bother.

Sometimes it takes a lot of waving to get Kinect’s attention, and it can lose track of small children moving too much around the room.

Kinect works well enough to play new games and give you a taste of the future. But it’s definitely going to be awhile before this sort of technology is ready for cash registers and airport security systems.

Fortunately, Kinect’s not doing anything critical just yet. It’s letting you pet digital cats, jump on virtual rafts and throw pretend bowling balls while the technology matures.

Maybe the flap is a mark of success: Kinect is already making it harder for people to tell the difference between reality and make believe.

After the outcry caused by its story, GameSpot did more testing in different rooms and with the players wearing different clothes.

Guess what happened? Kinect correctly identified the same “dark-skinned” players on the first try.

But Kinect hiccuped when one changed to a black shirt from a blue shirt. A fourth employee with dark skin brought in for testing wasn’t recognized.

From Gamespot’s update:

At first, the two employees who originally would not be recognized by the camera were correctly identified on the first try. However, when one changed from a light blue shirt to a black shirt (but stayed in the same room with the same lighting), the camera again failed to recognize him after multiple calibration tests. It also failed to recognize another darker-skinned GameSpot employee after four calibration attempts.

Bottom line, some Kinect users may be frustrated by its performance but there is no consistent effect attributable to race.

Kinect isn’t insensitive. The problem is that it’s overly sensitive and a little touchy. How Seattle can it get?

Comments | Topics: Games & entertainment, Kinect, kinect


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