Xbox 360 Kinect
So here it is then, Kinect has arrived. Microsoft's controller-free, motion-sensing, casual-enticing techno-eye is ready to gaze upon millions of living rooms across the world. Or tens of living rooms across the world, depending on how it all pans out. Let's take a closer look.
The run-up to Kinect's release hasn't exactly been perfect for Microsoft. After the massively positive groundswell of public opinion subsided following the tech's E3 2009 announcement, most of the discussion around the system has turned to whether or not it actually works properly.
Talk of lag and unresponsiveness have blighted the hardware, with the most vocal dissenters pointing to online videos and reports of crippling latency and violently epileptic avatars. No doubt there's been several very concerned PR meetings at Microsoft HQ over the past year or so.
We were hardly kind in our preview, either. After testing many of the launch titles, we were left with the impression that lag and sensitivity were definite issues, to the degree that in one particular case Kinect just didn't work. At all.
But that was a one-off, its origins unknown. In all of our sessions since then that same problem has failed to raise it's head. There is noticeable latency, sure, but never has Kinect become so unresponsive as to be unplayable. Far from it.
Regardless, the conclusions drawn from that preview session still hold true. Kinect demands that we recalibrate our expectations of what a game is and can be. While for years we have dealt in milliseconds and millimetres, Kinect exists on a macro level. Broad, sweeping movements and timings are the order of the day here.
At this stage that may seem abhorrent to the core gamer. After all, we've trained our twitch reflexes and pixel-perfect co-ordination for decades. But instantaneous 1:1 movement just isn't possible with Kinect in its current state. Not yet. But does that mean it isn't fun? Not at all.
Let's take a step back for a second. In sizing up Kinect against a traditional controller, we are overlooking a massive part of the hardware's appeal and a massive part of what makes it so astounding. Kinect allows you to interact with virtual worlds through speech and gestures in a way that not long ago was the stuff of science-fiction. It is the very bleeding edge of household technology.
As such, something as simple as navigating the menus of the Kinect Hub feels wonderfully Minority Report. Largely intuitive and accurate, you wave to take control of an on-screen cursor and simply move your hand over the tile in question, holding it there long enough to initiate your particular choice. Simple.
There's voice recognition there too. Following some unobtrusive on-screen prompts you can call up any of Xbox Live's many services with a short instruction. To get it to work you have to begin the statement by saying Xbox and enunciate and project your voice a touch, so that the sensor can differentiate your instructions from something said in conversation.
Neither of these input methods are 100%, however. With more than one person in the room, Kinect's gestural navigation can occasionally get confused about who is in control, while the voice controls occasionally don't respond. But they are minor nuisances, rather than huge problems.
The trick with much of the Kinect experience, is that there's a definite 'knack' to getting the whole thing work as you would expect. In games especially, a lack of true 1:1 movement and some odd camera foibles mean that it isn't always as intuitive as you would hope.
So in Kinect Sports' boxing mini-game, for example, you block by holding your arms in front of your chest or face. Our initial reaction was to tuck our arms in, close and tight to our bodies, hiding behind our forearms. But that isn't the best way. The sensor clearly finds it difficult to differentiate between your body and your limbs in such instances. So you quickly learn to hold your arms out, with your forearms angled upwards.
Similarly, casting a spell in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' Kinect mode takes a bit of getting used to. Thrown by holding your arm up and bended, then snapping it down and straight in the desired direction, you can't afford to do a sheepish or quickly-repeated impression of the desired act. There are no Wii-cheats here. Your movements have to be pronounced and deliberate.
Now the launch Kinect titles abound with niggles like this. Most of which take just couple of minutes to work out. You must acclimatise yourself to the way in which each game translates the sensor data in on-screen action. It's not rocket science. But if Kinect's mission statement is inclusion than this may provide a small barrier to some. There were few such issues with Wii, for example.
The nagging issue of room size won't go away, either. Kinect games constantly remind you that the ideal distance to stand from the sensor is six feet. That's the ideal distance. If you get closer, then the camera can no longer detect your entire body and it is forced to approximate what it thinks you are doing. Not ideal. The oft-repeated truth is that many British homes simply don't have that much floor space.
If you are capable of overcoming these issues, however, what awaits you is a genuinely fun. There is little to compare with jumping around, your inhibitions lost, dancing or bowling or boxing with friends and family. It's wonderfully silly, a social experience like no other. With a group of friends or a family, it's engaging and enjoyable.
This is where Kinect is at its most powerful, providing a platform capable of reducing you to fits of giggles with the ridiculous mimes needed to pull off a stunt in Joyride, or a header in Sports' football game.
It isn't a replacement for the controller, as Microsoft are quick to point out. It couldn't even begin to tackle a game like Call of Duty, for example, as there simply aren't enough inputs available. But tacked on to mini-game collections and sports games and the like, it serves its purpose solidly.
Time will tell if Kinect is able to provide the kind of titles the hardcore are looking for. Should developers really get to grips it, the odds are that the results will scarcely resemble our traditional gaming experiences. A whole new mind-set is needed. Any technology that demands such change is to be applauded.
So it's not perfect. it's not as good as a traditional controller at immediately transferring your actions on to the screen, it takes a little getting used to, and the launch titles are a largely lightweight. But make no mistake, Kinect represents the first shaky steps towards a revolution that will change the way we interact with everything. For that reason alone it is fascinating.