There are fewer topics more divisive than motion controllers in gaming these days. Take the huge success of the Nintendo Wii and the subsequent deluge of “casual” games; despite the Wii being nearly 5 years old it still can produce angry debates in every corner of the gaming world. Still the detractors of the Wii still had their hardcore consoles from Sony and Microsoft free from irritating waggle games… until now.
September saw the release of Sony’s Playstation Move, and this week saw the UK release of Microsoft’s Kinect. While comparisons between the Playstation Move and the Nintendo Wii can easily be drawn thanks to their reliance on remote controllers, Kinect promises to be something quite different. But is it any good?
First things first, while Microsoft is treating Kinect as if it were the launch of a new console you do not need to buy a new Xbox in order to use it. Kinect will work on every type of Xbox 360 out there, be it an older Arcade, Pro, or Elite, or one of the new Xbox 360 S. Kinect comes with its own wall socket plug to power it if you have an older Xbox, but if you are fortunate enough to own the 360 S then can connect it to the back of your 360 and have it run off of the 360’s power supply.
Upon booting up Kinect for the first time a small update is required to be installed. Once the update is complete you are asked to confirm that you have Kinect on a firm place either above or below the television, between two and six feet off of the ground. The basic set up process involves Kinect scanning the room’s size, including showing off the camera’s built in automatic tilting, as well as reading the background noise and the general noise levels of your sound systems. Kinect scans these noise levels in order to determine what sounds it needs to filter out, allowing your voice commands to be heard over the games you are playing or the films you are watching.
Following the installation process you are asked to simply say “Xbox Kinect”. I was immediately impressed by the fact that the Xbox recognised my voice, and more importantly actually understood my commands, without me having to teach Kinect to recognise my voice. After issuing this command I was taken to a simplified version of the Xbox Dashboard which is made up of three separate pages. The first page you see consists of 6 large square icons, each representing a separate part of the dashboard, such as Inside Xbox, the UK video on demand Sky Player, and the game that is currently in your disk tray. The other pages include the Zune video store, achievements, and Avatar customisation tools.
To put the voice recognition to the test I asked my wife, who is an American, to issue a command. Kinect recognised her voice without a single problem which clearly indicates that it does not have any problems understanding our different accents. Her command of “Xbox… Sky Player” lead to a new streamlined version of the Sky Player being launched, which focuses on accessing the more recently added films and TV shows. Should you wish to watch older videos, or search for content in a more in depth way, you can return to the regular dashboard set up by saying “Xbox Dashboard” or “Xbox Back”. Any video you watch in the Sky Player, either on the regular dashboard or the Kinect Hub, can be paused, rewound, or fast forwarded with simple vocal commands, which means you will never need to worry about losing the remote again.
If using your voice does not appeal then you can navigate the menus using simple hand gestures. In order to take control with your hands you simply need to wave at Kinect. However it took me a little while to figure this out thanks to the packaged instructions being a little too vague for my liking. I spent a while just talking to the Xbox trying to persuade it to allow me to activate motion controls before I realised I only had to wave at it.
Moving your hand of choice will bring up a hand shaped icon on screen. Although the movement is not entirely 1 for 1 movement there is barely any lag at all, and it all feels incredibly natural and invigorating. In order to get the most out of your Kinect hardware you will need to run the more in-depth calibration process on the Kinect Hub, which can be accessed on the dashboard or even mid-game. Should you wish to access this calibration tool with your regular Xbox controller you can access it by pressing the guide button.
Most Kinect games come packaged with a small card that features a friendly smiling face which the camera has been designed detect. The calibration process is incredibly simple, taking mere minutes, and involves holding up this card at different areas of the room at varying distances. This helps the device understand the shape and lighting conditions at the time of calibrating. In order to get the best performance out of Kinect you will likely need to run the calibration process at several different points during the day, such as morning, noon, and night, to help the camera understand the different lighting conditions in your room of choice.
Contrary to early reports Kinect’s motion controls work perfectly in low light as well as in darkness. The only feature that does not work well in low lighting is the facial recognition for obvious reasons. Speaking of the facial recognition, this can be set up after a short calibration process, which revolves around forming specific stances at specific distances. This allows you to associate yourself with your chosen Xbox Gamertag, which leads to you being signed in to the Xbox by simply standing in front of the camera.
When setting up Kinect they inform you that you will need between six ft and eight ft of space between you and Kinect to get the most of out the system. Many people will not be able to accomodate this need, particularly in smaller bedrooms. However, in order to stress test the device I chose to set my Kinect up in my bedroom which measures at about 12 ft by 15ft. After testing the camera out in several different positions I found that Kinect will work at its best when it is placed fairly high up. You can purchase a stand that can attach to the top of your TV, however this is not entirely necessary.
I personally do not have any space directly in front of my TV, so I simply placed Kinect on a bookcase just to the right of my TV (which also happens to be directly in front of my play space). Not having Kinect directly above or below the TV does not seem to hinder performance in any noticeable way, despite Microsoft’s recommendations. So, yes, you will need space to play your games – and this may require you moving some furniture out of the way – but it is not as big a hindrance as some people may fear.
In summary Kinect is a fantastic piece of kit that impresses almost every step of the way. You may experience a few teething problems when you first set it up, but after performing the calibration process a few times at different points in the day Kinect will be able to follow you effortlessly. The only thing you need consider when deciding to purchase it or not is to figure out if you have enough space to move around while playing games without banging in to things.
Of course each gaming device is only as good as the games you can play on it, so currently I do not feel as if it is possible to attribute a score to Kinect itself. All I can say is that the technology is impressive and works incredibly well, creating satisfying “WOW!” moments time and time again. As for games, while each Kinect comes packaged with a copy of Kinect Adventures, there are over a dozen titles available for Kinect already and you would be best off picking up at least one other game with it.
But which game should you pick I hear you ask? Stay tuned to The Newb Review as we will be publishing our reviews for Kinect Adventures, Kinectimals, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, Dance Central and Kinect Sports over the next week.