"This can't be the Xbox 360," my 8-year-old daughter said. "Nobody is getting shot."

That's an interesting commentary on the Xbox 360, and perhaps one that needs to be investigated. But the other part of this conversation that bears revealing is that she was hopping up in down in a giddy daze when she said it. My kids don't just like the Kinect, they love it. And so do all their friends. And when a friend from the neighborhood saw it for the first time, she couldn't figure out whether to jump in immediately or run back across the street to ensure she could get one for Christmas. She finally ran home, and my wife and the friend's mother were soon chatting about the finer points of Kinect on the phone.

Folks, Microsoft is onto something here.

That Kinect seems, at first blush, like a weak copy of Nintendo's five-year-old Wii is understandable. After all, that's what Sony's Move system is. But the Kinect is so much more than the Wii, or the Move for that matter, more technologically advanced, as you'd expect, but also "more" in a real world sense. It gives you more, does more, and as a result is just ... more. The good kind of more.

The only real question about the Kinect, really, is whether it will have a longer shelf life than your typical Wii. I still firmly believe--and game title sales bear out--that most Wiis get used very infrequently, that people buy a Wii, go nuts for a few days, and then throw it, forgotten, in a corner. Kinect could suffer the same fate, to be honest. And while there's no way to know if that's going to be the case, it's something to think about.

What we can discuss now, of course, is the hardware itself. The software, which is mostly excellent. A handful of the first-generation games, which are also mostly excellent. Most of the Kinect story, even in this first, nascent release, is quite impressive. There are some performance issues--especially in the non-gaming UIs, where using Kinect to navigate the Xbox 360 Dashboard is a semi-frustrating, molasses-like experience--and it really needs a room that has 6 to 8 feet of open, empty space in front of the TV. My living room doesn't quite qualify, and while we haven't moved furniture to accommodate the thing yet, we're talking about it.

The Kinect really is that impressive.

  Click here to find out more!
 

 

Kinect 101

In the off chance that you've been studiously ignoring the news for two years, Kinect (previously code-named "Project Natal") is a motion sensor system for the Xbox 360 video game console. It consists of a hardware add-on that plugs into the console and software that allows users to interact with the console via the Kinect hardware. The main capabilities here are hand (and body) gestures, where you wave body parts (mostly your hands) around in space to control things on screen and, less well publicized, voice command, which may have a longer-lasting appeal for some activities.

The hardware itself is a Wall-E looking device. Microsoft calls it a "sensor," but really it's more than that: Yes, there's a "sensor" in the hardware device, but there's also an RGB camera for facial recognition, a depth sensor that's composed of separate sensors and an infrared projector (so the device can "see" the area in front of it in 3D), and a multiarray microphone that can locate voices in 3D by sound and enable headset-free chat and voice command. That it's all wrapped up in a cute little device, which, yes, I'll simply call the sensor for simplicity's sake, is sort of amazing. It's the type of component reduction and packaging one usually associates with Apple.

Kinect for Xbox 360

The Kinect sensor connects to your Xbox 360 video a proprietary, USB-like, cable. Well, if you have the newer Xbox 360 S, it does. Otherwise, with the older console type, you'll need to use the Kinect-to-USB adapter and a separate power cable (both supplied). I recommend the newer S console, both for the cable simplicity and because it's quieter and more reliable, and more at home in the living room as a result.

Microsoft has some somewhat onerous requirements for Kinect sensor placement and the room in which you use the device. It must be directly on top of, or below, your TV screen. It must be on a very stable surface, and not perched on your tiny HDTV bezel. You must have, at the very least, 6 feet of empty space in front of your TV, but really you need 8 feet. You really do. And this is especially true if you plan to allow two people to play, side-by-side, simultaneously. The more room the better.

Our own Kinect setup, for now at least, is pretty temporary. It's almost exactly 6 feet from the TV to the couch--it's a small room--and while we can sort of make it work, it's borderline unusable. We jury-rigged an end table for the sensor, placing it right under the TV. But I've got a Kinect mount on order (there are several coming soon) that will put the device safely on top of the TV. To accommodate for the small room, we're currently using it at an angle, so that the Kinect is to the right of the TV, pointed 45 degrees to the left. It "works" but we may end up moving it to a new room if the mount doesn't solve the problem. Or we'll move the furniture.

Software support for the Kinect comes via the recently released Dashboard update, which I wrote about previously in Xbox Live Update (Late 2010). As is so often the case with Xbox 360 games, you'll need to perform a software update immediately regardless, and annoyingly, a lot of the sub-experiences, like Zune music, require their own separate installs as well.

I'll discuss the specifics of Kinect usage in a bit, but the short version is that adding a Kinect to your Xbox 360 provides some new capabilities, including voice commands from the Dashboard ("Xbox, play game") and supported sub-experiences (including Zune, where you can speak commands like, "Pause," "Play," "Fast forward," and "Faster"). There's a new Kinect Hub, which provides a Kinect-compatible subset of the full Dashboard, using hand-gesture-friendly tiles (shades of Windows Phone 7, which is cute) you manipulate by waving your hands around in space. And there are of course Kinect-compatible games. In fact, it's worth noting, in case it's not obvious, that Kinect games require a Kinect, while traditional Xbox 360 games cannot be used with Kinect. (They can be used while the Kinect is plugged in, of course. They just don't "know" it's there and can't be controlled with hand gestures or voice control.)

Initial setup

If you live in a well-lit palatial mansion, setting up Kinect should be pretty straightforward. If, however, you live in a normal home like mine, you're going to need some more time. Microsoft actually recommends clearing some space for Kinect, and they're serious about that, as the more you have, the better. Many, I suspect, will have to make do with what they've got. But be forewarned: As much as those living in small apartments or dorm rooms would no doubt love to make this work, in many cases I could see that not happening. And you can't fudge this: If you stand too close, Kinect won't work at all or will react sluggishly.

And it's not just the size of the room. It has to be well-lit, from the front, so playing in the dark is not possible.

Kinect for Xbox 360
Yeah, you really do need a room this big to take best advantage of Kinect.

Once everything is plugged in and all the required software updates are installed, you can connect your current Xbox Live account to the Kinect, or add and connect different profiles. This involves a fairly lengthy process where the device sees whether it can work in the current space allotted and, can see and hear you, and so on. The Kinect sensor actually moves around a bit on its little pedestal, which everyone seems to enjoy, but this whole process is pretty time consuming.

After the fact, you can reconfigure Kinect, if needed, via a new Kinect Settings item in System Settings, or access just the Kinect Tuner--with tracking, audio, and calibration options--through the Xbox Guide (which means that the latter options are available from within games as well).

There are pretty much two things you can do from here: Play a game or sample the Kinect's non-gaming capabilities. Of course, at this point, you're dying to play a game. So let's look at the Kinect game experience first.

Kinect gaming

The promise of Kinect is hands-free gaming, and it actually delivers. You have to sit through an interminable number of Wii-like, safety-first screens before each game, which gets really old. But once you do get into a game ... My goodness. This is the real deal. I was working up a sweat within minutes.

Note that while Kinect games are currently graphically superior to anything on the Wii, they're not up to the graphical quality of even the first generation Xbox 360 titles from five years ago. Don't get me wrong, they generally look great. But they're closer in quality to Wii games, with in-game avatars that are cartoonish, not realistic. You're not going to care. The games are great.

If you're familiar with the Wii, the important bit to remember is that there's no controller now. This is both freeing and limiting, but mostly it's good news. Most important, Kinect tracks your whole body in 3D space, and not just a controller. So your hands and feet can factor in independently, but so too can your whole body. Lean to the left and your onscreen character leans to the left. Raise your hands above your head and the avatar mimics that movement. If you do it, it happens on screen.

There are occasional times where holding something would make the game more immersive (like the mini steering wheel from the Wii's Mario Kart game). But for the most part, there's a shockingly liberating effect to simply stepping in front of the TV, having Kinect automatically recognize you, and then just start playing. It really is impressive.

Kinect Adventures

The Kinect comes with Kinect Adventures, which is a nice touch, because it's a great game that really shows off what's possible. Kinect Adventures consists of five individual games, all of which are fun, and some of which are truly excellent. River Rush, Rallyball, Reflex Ridge, Space Pop, and 20,000 Leaks. River Rush is probably one of the best-known Kinect games because of its frequent use in demos, River Rush is absolutely fantastic fun, and can be played with one or two players (assuming you have the space). Two player is, of course, superior, but both are a blast, and you navigate down a river in a boat, jumping to leap onto higher areas and across chasms, and leaning left and right to steer, avoid objects, and so on.

Kinect for Xbox 360
River Rush is great fun, especially with two players.

Kinect Adventures is just good clean fun, and because it, like most Kinect games, takes photos of you while you play, you can share them, optionally, via a new web site called KinectShare.com (this requires an Xbox Live account, however). From here, you can further share your captured game moments to Facebook, print them, or download them to your PC.

Kinect for Xbox 360
A shared postcard from an in-game moment.

Kinect Sports

This game will be familiar to anyone with a Wii, as its very similar to the Wii sports fare, but with better graphics and more diversity. Several games are included--soccer, bowling, beach volleyball, boxing, table tennis, and track & field--and you can divide up a large crowd into two teams for party play. This is a great, if typical example, of motion gaming, and a must-have title for all Kinect fans.

Kinect for Xbox 360
Beach vollyball from Kinect Sports.

Kinect Joy Ride

You'd think that a driving game without any controller or steering wheel would be lame, but Kinect Joy Ride is actually really good, thanks largely to its cartoon-like irreverence and in-air stunts. There are a number of game modes, which is fine, but if you've mastered River Rush in Kinect Adventures, this will seem somewhat familiar, with a canyon roadway setting instead of a river. What puts it over the top, I think, is 8-way online multiplayer.

Kinect for Xbox 360
Perform stunts in-air for more points in Kinect Joy Ride.

Your Shape Fitness Evolved

My wife utilizes an EA title on the Wii to workout, and it really works, so I was curious to see how the Kinect would fare in this department. It's early days, but so far so good: She says it seems like it has good workouts and good progress reporting, but it's not clear up front how long a workout will take, making scheduling difficult. Some workouts recommend hand weights, which speaks to the problems of working out with a controller-less solution. Exercise-wise, it's serious and really works, and it tracks your calories expended as you go, which is something I appreciate from gym equipment. Better than the Wii? It's too early to say.

Kinect for Xbox 360
Your Shape Fitness Evolved will make you sweat. Literally.

More to come

I've got a few more Kinect titles coming this week, including EA Sports Active 2 and Dance Central, both of which promise to be calorie burners. And really, that's what's amazing about the Kinect. All of these games, so far, are pretty serious workouts, even the ones that are clearly just games. After decades of sedentary video game playing, Kinect really could make a difference. I'm curious, again, to see how long-lived this thing is in people's homes.

Non-gaming use

In addition to playing controller-free games, Kinect also provides a number of less well publicized non-gaming features. These include the ability to use hand gestures to interact with certain (but not all) Xbox 360 Dashboard experiences, which is interesting at first but gets old quickly. It also includes the ability to control the same experiences via voice, which I think will have longer-lasting appeal.

What you can and cannot control with Kinect seems somewhat arbitrary and I hope that changes over time. For example, you can control the new Zune experience, providing gesture- or voice-based access to movies, TV shows, your Zune (cloud-based) library, movie trailers, music (online, Zune Pass only), and music videos. But this stuff is all online services; you cannot use Kinect to access your own media library over the home network. Back to that old fashioned hand controller.

Fortunately, Microsoft takes the guesswork out of what works and what doesn't work by providing a separate Kinect Hub, which presents a subset of the full Xbox 360 Dashboard using a simple, Windows Phone 7-like grid of boxes. Why? Because these boxes are gesture friendly, of course.

Available options include launching the currently loaded game, playing promotional game videos, accessing the ESPN and Zune experiences, last.fm (an online music service), and Video Kinect, a neat new video chat application. Many of these--ESPN, Zune, and Video Kinect, for example--require annoying separate downloads, which are lengthy and interrupt the experience, sometimes by rebooting the console as part of the installation.

Kinect for Xbox 360
The gesture- and voice-friendly Kinect Hub.

Gesture-based navigation works but is a bit slow and tedious. As you move your hand around in space, a little onscreen hand mimics your movements. To select something ("click" with a mouse on a PC), you hover over it until a little circle finishing animating. To navigate to the next screen, you can hover over an arrow and then swipe through the air. It all works as expected, albeit slowly. And holding your hand in the air to select things gets tiring.

Kinect for Xbox 360
A Microsoft demo explaining gesture navigation.

Voice command is more interesting for these experiences, I think. And you can say a surprising range of commands, usually preceded by the word "Xbox." So to bring up the Kinect Hub, you simply say "Xbox, Kinect." From here you could launch the Kinect-friendly version of the Zune experience by saying "Xbox, Zune" (and no, you can't just say "Zune").

Kinect for Xbox 360

The Zune experience for Kinect mimics the Kinect hub, with big, gesture-friendly squares. But you can also navigate this by voice: "Xbox, Music" will launch the music experience, and if you have a Zune Pass, as I do, you can rock and roll to over 10 million songs, in real time, over the Internet, all via voice command. "Pause" pauses the currently playing song. "Next" navigates to the next song. You get the idea. (During playback, you say "Xbox" to bring up a voice command overlay that presents possible commands.)

There are some neat voice commands in there. "Suggest a movie," for example, does exactly what it sounds like, and if you do nothing else, a trailer will start playing full-screen. To rent the movie, say "Watch this" and then "Continue" if the onscreen options (HD, rental, stream is typical) are acceptable. (You can of course switch to the controller at any time as well.) And you don't have to shout: From across the room, just speak naturally. It works well.

The voice command stuff is going to make a lot of sense in certain situations, media playback in general, but also for parties where you've queued up a playlist and need to change things up on the fly. I suspect there are going to be a lot of pleasantly surprised houseguests when people see how powerful this really is.

Logistics

Kinect requires an Xbox 360 video game console. It will work with both the original 360 console and the newer "S" variant. If you purchase the standalone sensor, you're looking at about $150, but you get a free game with that, and that game, Kinect Adventures, is excellent.

You can also purchase Kinect in bundles that include an Xbox 360 S console. For $300, you can get the Xbox 360 4GB console with Kinect, a savings of $50 over both purchased separately. Or you can get a bundle with the more desirable 250 GB console for $400, also a $50 savings.

Kinect games generally costs less than the typical new Xbox 360 game, $50 vs. $60. That's about the same price as most new A-list Wii titles, though many Wii games do cost less. I personally feel that the Xbox 360 + Kinect is a more useful and viable long-term solution than the Wii, however, as the latter doesn't even provide HD output let alone the host of non-gaming experiences Microsoft offers on the Xbox 360.

This is just the beginning

While I don't expect to be covering Kinect on an ongoing basis per se, it's pretty clear that this device and this first crop of games is only the beginning of a long relationship. My kids and wife are curiously excited by this thing, in ways they usually aren't, as noted previously, everyone who sees it in action--kids and adults alike--is instantly impressed and begins doing mental calculations about how and when they are getting one. I still wonder about the long-term impact, but that's a story that requires some time to tell. For now, Kinect is impressive, fun, and even reasonably affordable in its day one guise. And you just know it's only going to get better.

What impresses me most about Kinect is the way it draws in non-gamers. This is a fertile field first plowed by Nintendo with the Wii, Facebook on the web, and Apple on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. But the Kinect is at least as innovative, if not much more so, than all those products, and it works with the HDTV in your living room, often involves a full body workout, and leaves everyone with smiles on their faces. This is entertainment in its purest form, and while I'm personally more interested in hard core shooters like "Call of Duty," I understand that I'm in the minority. Kinect isn't for me, it's for everyone. If you've avoided the Xbox 360 or video gaming in general, your excuses no longer make sense.

Let me make this simple: Just get a Kinect. You're going to love it.