Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 £125
4th Nov 2010 | 04:01
You become the Xbox 360 controller with Microsoft's motion peripheral
Kinect review: Overview
The Nintendo Wii made waves when it came out in 2006.
It wasn't because of an exciting array of incredible launch titles - there weren't any. And it absolutely wasn't due to the Wii packing dazzling HD graphics - it doesn't.
It was all down to the motion-controlled gaming interface which put players inside games for the first time.
Playing a tennis game suddenly became about swinging and hitting a ball, instead of using your fingers to hit the right buttons on a control pad in the right order. Gaming was revolutionised.
Four years and 75 million worldwide Wii sales later, Microsoft and Sony have now both released their high-tech answers to the Wii-mote, and they couldn't be more different.
While Sony's PlayStation Move uses the PlayStation Eye camera to detect and measure the location of high-tech and spatially-aware handheld controllers, Kinect has no physical controllers to speak of at all.
The idea is that your body is the controller. It's up to the Kinect games and apps to use the camera and microphone to work out what you're doing and what you're saying, and to interpret your commands in the appropriate fashion.
How it works
The Kinect sensor contains an RGB camera and a depth sensor to track your movement. It measures the positioning of 48 key joints in your anatomy and by tracking the movements of these joints, it can work out exactly what position your body is in. What's more, it sees in 3D by overlaying the input from the RGB camera with the depth sensor.
Meanwhile the built-in multiarray microphone monitors the room for your voice - yep, Kinect even allows you to control your Xbox 360 using voice commands alone.
It's almost too good to be true, isn't it? These are the hopes and dreams of every 6-year old child come-true. It's the sort of technology we only dreamed about while watching '60s TV series' like The Jetsons as kids.
But this isn't fantasy. This is real. And so what we nervously want to know is - does it really work, and is it any good?
Kinect review: Features
Kinect has a colour, and it's purple.
While all Xbox games thus far have come in those distinctive green DVD cases, Kinect boxes are purple. So from now on, purple means 'Requires Kinect Sensor' and green means normal 360 game.
Some games which don't require Kinect, but have Kinect features for those who have it, will come with a 'Better with Kinect' sticker on the box.
It's Microsoft's way of avoiding confusion in the market place. So there'll be no trying to work out if something is Kinect compatible or not. If the box is purple, it's a Kinect game.
The Kinect Sensor will set you back £125 on launch. It comes with a free copy of Kinect Adventures - a title with lots of mini sub-games like Wii Sports, designed to showcase the various capabilities of the Kinect sensor.
Now, it probably won't have escaped your notice that £125 is rather a lot of money. After all, you can pick up a brand new Xbox 360 console for about £140. Meanwhile, a PlayStation Move controller costs about £40.
However, despite this, we don't think Kinect is necessarily bad value for money, and this is why.
Kinect can detect up to six people in a room, and supports two active players at a time. So that £125 brings with it two-player gaming from the word go. That compares favourably to the £127 you'd have to pay for the equivalent PS Move setup (with PS Eye, two Move controllers
and two navigation controllers).
The main downside with Kinect is that if you have no friends and just want to play on your own, you're going to have to fork out the full £125 regardless. While this is a pain, the single-piece nature of the device doesn't allow it to work any other way.
There are two different ways to, erm, connect Kinect to your Xbox 360. If you've got one of the new, slim models, there's a proprietary connection on the back which you can plug Kinect into directly. This also supplies power to the sensor.
However, if you're stuck with an older model, you can still plug Kinect in by using one of the two USB ports on the front and you'll need to plug it into the wall for power using this method, too.
Ideally, the Kinect sensor needs at least six feet of space between you and it, to work properly. And really, you're going to need another five feet or so either side of you in order to have room to move around freely. And we're talking bare minimum, here - you wouldn't want to have any less space than that.
This is obviously a bit of a handicap as there'll be plenty of keen Xbox gamers out there who just don't have the room for it.
We found that positioning the Kinect Sensor on top of the TV instead of below and in front helped a bit in this respect. That way, the camera has more to look at, and you can make the most of the room you have if you've got limited space available.
And it's as easy as that. Once you've placed the Kinect sensor, you switch your Xbox on and you're taken through an easy peasy set-up process.
Kinect comes with its own menu system, accessible from the Xbox 360's dashboard. Inside this menu, you are able to access all of the Kinect-compatible entertainment features that are available to you.
What's more, you can browse to these features without using the Xbox 360 controller.
The Kinect experience begins as soon as you switch on your 360. At the sign-in screen, if you wave at your TV, Kinect will recognise your face and sign you straight into your own Xbox Live account. Once you're into the Xbox dashboard, another wave at the TV will take you to the special new Kinect dashboard menu.
In this menu you can access all your Kinect-compatible content including whatever game you have in your drive, Sky Player, Last fm, Zune music service, etc.
You can navigate using your Xbox controller, but what Microsoft really wants you to do is use hand gestures. And this is the point where you find out if Kinect is for you or not.
You interact with the Kinect dashboard and with most Kinect games in mostly the same way. If you hold your hand out in front of you, a hand icon appears on the screen. You then move your hand so that the icon moves to the option you want to select and you hold it there for a couple of seconds.
A circular progress bar around the hand icon depicts the time you need to hold your hand in place. We found it to be a slightly tedious experience.
Some games, such as Dance Central, use a point-and-swipe sort of system which seemed a lot more intuitive and less of a hassle. We found the point-and-hold system just a bit awkward, it was hard to actually get the hand icon to stay on the option we wanted and once in position, holding for a second or two was just a bit of a pain.
You get used to it after a while, but frankly, we can't see why anyone would want to navigate an Xbox menu by holding their arm in the air, instead of just pressing a few buttons on the controller.
There's a certain novelty aspect to it, of course, and while we didn't allow ourselves to go back to using the 360 controller, we certainly wanted to at times.
Possibly the most Star Trek-like feature of Kinect is voice control. When using media services such as Sky Player or the Zune music service, you can control your Xbox using your voice alone.
You get the Xbox's attention by saying "Xbox". A list of commands then pops up from the top of the screen. If you're playing music or watching a video, these commands typically include
pause/play/stop/rewind/fastforward/faster/slower. We'll discuss how well this all works on the next page.
Microsoft Kinect: Performance
There's no denying that there's some fantastic tech inside Kinect. It's an impressive system, but in order to really enjoy it, you may have to readjust your expectations with regard to what it is and what it isn't capable of.
If you're expecting to play a game and have your on-screen avatar do exactly as you do with your body, quickly, completely in sync and with no lag - you're going to be disappointed. You just can't do that in most games.
Kinect is less about having your exact real-world movements appearing on screen in real-time and more about using your body as a controller.
Take a game such as Fighters Uncaged as an example. It's a 3D Beat 'em up title where you control your fighter by performing fighting moves. But there's a significant delay between you unleashing your kicks and punches, and them being mirrored on screen.
If you let rip with a heaving uppercut, you'll have already finished swinging before your avatar will mirror your move.
It's the same for all games. In the River Rush minigame in Kinect Adventures, you have to lean and jump in order to avoid obstacles. But your character doesn't jump perfectly in time with you - there's a split-second delay.
Across the board, with all games and apps, this delay is dependant on how fast you move. A slow, gradual movement, for example, has almost no noticeable lag at all. The faster you move, the more pronounced the lag is.
It also doesn't matter how high you jump or whether you tuck your knees in or anything like that - your on-screen avatar will just jump in the same way each time. It won't mirror your exact movements.
And that's because with most games, your movements merely trigger a pre-animated action in the game - rather than the avatars exactly mimicking you.
The first few times we played with Kinect, this bothered us a lot. It prevented us from having the kind of fun we envisioned having when Microsoft first announced the product.
But if you can get over this issue, it's not all doom and gloom.
The better news
With many games, this lag issue is actually totally irrelevant anyway.
Dance Central, for instance, from Harmonix - the makers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band - is all about skill, precision and timing. You must perform the right dance moves in time with the music and dancers on screen, in order to get a good score. Lag doesn't come into it because you're mirroring the dancers, rather than the dancers mirroring you.
Equally, there are plenty of health and fitness-themed games such as The Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout. They're all about balance and body position rather than quick moves, flying kicks and punches.
Imagine a Yoga game where the on-screen tutor analyses your posture and tells you how to perform Downward-facing dog a bit better. Kinect is just as much about this kind of thing as it is about the hardcore action titles.
And so what it's done is make the Xbox a much more appealing console for casual gamers. This is something PlayStation Move does not offer.
It does take a while to get to grips with Kinect. Ignoring the lag issues with some games, the other major battle facing you is to get the hang of a new kind of hand-eye coordination.
Some people find it hard enough to catch a ball or donk a pingpong ball in real life without messing up. With Kinect, you've got to do those things on behalf of your on-screen character. You've got to transplant your thinking into the body of your avatar, timing your movements on its behalf, which is more tricky that it sounds - especially when you have to factor in the lag.
When it came to games such as Kinect Adventures throwing obstacles at us, we found ourselves wanting to wait until that obstacle reached the screen before performing the appropriate manoeuvre, rather than waiting until it reached our on-screen character. This meant we were often too late to perform the jump or sidestep.
Again, this is something which improved over time. But still, again it represents a barrier between you and the game. We wanted to feel like we were inside the games we were playing. But in general, you don't get that feeling at all - you're still just controlling a character - who isn't you - on the screen.
Once you've got the hang of it though, Kinect is perfectly accurate enough. If you mess up, you generally feel like it was your fault rather than the game not working properly.
There were a few occasions when Kinect got rather confused. The most frequent issue we encountered was when someone stepped into view of the Kinect sensor when someone else was gaming. Occasionally Kinect would then lock on to the wrong person, which caused obvious problems. There were also a few issues with voice control.
Voice control - does it work?
Controlling something like Sky Player with voice commands is good fun and works almost perfectly.
The voice command 'Xbox' lets the console know you're going to talk to it, and the on-screen options (which bare some resemblance to the original Monkey Island command menu) pop up quickly. The Xbox more often than not did exactly as we asked it to, it's really good fun. Kids will love it.
However, that's not to say it's a perfect system, because it's not.
As you can imagine, the likelihood of someone saying the word 'Xbox' while you're fiddling with your... Xbox, is quite high. So unsurprisingly, it wasn't an uncommon occurrence for someone in the room to say "Xbox" only to trigger the Xbox's voice command feature by mistake.
This would be easily remedied if there was any kind of individual voice recognition system, where you could tell the Xbox only to respond to a specific person's voice. But unfortunately that's not possible - not yet.
Our second problem with voice control is that while it technically takes almost no effort at all to say "Xbox.... pause" when the naughty bit in Wild Things comes on, it's still a lot quicker to just grab the controller and hit the pause button with your finger.
For this reason, we can imagine many people simply abandoning the voice control system completely.
Equally, we can also see a just as many people being so fascinated by this feature that they never want to go back to their controller.
Kinect review: Verdict
Kinect has had a bit of a rocky ride up to now. There's been plenty of criticism - including from us at TechRadar - but you know what? We think Kinect is actually pretty good.
The problem is that the people who'll be most interested in Kinect from the off are the hardcore gamers who've had their 360s for ages. They've got a mountain of games, and they're looking for something new.
But Kinect is not necessarily for that type of gamer. Sure, there are plenty of Kinect games aimed at that hardcore audience, but we think Kinect is a product designed to bring the Xbox 360 to a wider audience.
Kinect turns the Xbox 360 from a console predominantly aimed at young men, to a family machine with infinite possibilities.
Games such as Kinectimals are a prime example. That game is not aimed at anyone other than young children, and for them it's fantastic. Equally, there's going to be a raft of new Kinect titles coming out to cater for other untapped demographics.
Voice control works nicely, and we never had a problem with games or apps misunderstanding what we were saying.
We also love the way Kinect is opening up the 360 into a much more well-rounded console. Microsoft is going to sell a lot of consoles to a wider range of people off the back of Kinect, and so if it gets more people involved, that's a good thing in our book.
We didn't like:
We don't like having to hold our arms in the air in order to select from the Kinect menus. It's annoying and we much preferred the point-and-swipe method employed by some of the games.
Space is also a major negative - there'll be plenty of budding Kinect gamers out there who won't be able to join in due to not having enough space in their living rooms. We suspect this will be more of a problem for European gamers than North American ones.
Lag is also an issue, and while you can get used to it, Kinect doesn't quite feel like the finished article while these delays exist. It's also a bit more expensive than we'd like, but it's hard to criticise this simply because Kinect is such a unique product.
We like Kinect a lot. But it's not a perfect product by any means, and many hardcore gamers out there are going to be disappointed by it.
However, we think it's an impressive piece of technology, and in the months and years ahead we envisage it spawning some truly revolutionary games.
For the moment though, the launch titles seem a bit weak and that £125 price tag looks just a bit too much.