I’m Kinected

I’ve been pretty excited about Project Natal Kinect (sorry, I still like the old name) since I first heard about it.  I’ve been watching demo videos for months and even early ones looked promising.  Deep down though I’ve feared that it could turn out to be as bad as the Sega Activator.  Yesterday Microsoft released Kinect and now we can all see it in action.

I thought about pre-ordering one but ultimately passed on it.  Esther and I decided it would make a nice family holiday present.  Let’s just say that Christmas came a bit early this year.  This morning a friend mentioned on twitter that he’d found one at Walmart.  He inspired me to take a chance and see if the Target down the road from my house would have one available.  There were two on the shelf so I bought one along with a copy of Kinectimals to try to keep Nadia (my one year old) entertained.  After a long day at work we finally got to try it out.  So how’d Microsoft do?

Initial setup was REALLY easy.  I have one of the new Xbox 360 S consoles so all I needed to do was connect the device to the Kinect port on the back of the console.  There’s also an included power adapter to connect it to a USB port on the older consoles.  Once the device was connected and the console turned on some drivers were installed and it automatically took me through a configuration/tutorial.

Navigating through menus and selecting items typically involves holding some position for a few seconds.  Although the delay seemed like it could be a bit shorter it was never terribly annoying.  What is annoying though is that Kinect isn’t as deeply integrated as it should be.  Instead of controlling the Xbox dashboard directly there’s this “Kinect Hub” that’s accessed either by waving at the device or with a voice command.  Both methods have worked reliably and about equally well.  Once inside the hub there’s a limited subset of actions that can be taken.  We can play whatever is in the tray, watch ESPN, listen to, edit our avatars, but not much more.

Voice commands work really, really well.  In some cases they’re easier than gestures.  The biggest problem with the voice commands is that they don’t go deep enough.  Aside from saying “Xbox………Kinect” to access the Kinect Hub they only work at the top level of the hub (with a few exceptions like  Once you enter a section you’re forced to use gestures…even with videos.  That brings me to my biggest complaint about the system.

The only thing I’ve run into that’s truly aggravating, maddening even, is that there are no voice controls for most video playback.  Using voice control for video playback was one of the biggest selling points for me and was featured pretty in some of the demo videos.  Given how accurate the voice recognition system is it’s really discouraging that this feature is missing and I really hope that there’s another console update soon to address this.  I also wish that the voice command for opening the tray was available when there’s a disc in there.  It seems odd that it’s only enabled when the tray is empty.  Maybe I’d like the tray to be open when I get to the console.

As far as the gaming experience goes I’ve only played Kinect Adventures and Kinectimals.  Both are very Wii-esque but they’re far more engaging and enjoyable.

Esther and I both got several hours of entertainment from Kinect Adventures.  Despite the Wii-like nature of the mini-games the game play experience itself is completely different and unique.  With Kinect we’re not limited to waving a wand at the TV.  Instead we get a full-body workout where we swing our arms and legs around, walk, jump, and stretch.  With Kinect there’s no worry about throwing a remote through the television or a balance board complaining because you pushed too hard.

Kinectimals is incredibly cute.  Many scenes were met with an “Awwwwww” from Esther and/or happy shrieks from Nadia who really seemed to enjoy watching.  Although Kinectimals does engage the full body through actions like jumping and spinning most of the time (so far) has really just been trying to “throw” random objects at other random objects while a tiger kitten runs around.  The throwing mechanics didn’t seem particularly accurate but I managed to adjust to it pretty well.  I can’t say that it kept my attention all that long but I guess I’d probably enjoy it a bit more if I were a five year old girl which is what it really seems to be targeting.

Overall I think Microsoft really hit the mark with Kinect.  While it does have some problems the majority of them seem addressable (and I hope Microsoft does it soon).  At this point it’s certainly not ready for every type of game.  I struggle to see how some types of games would work with Kinect (shooters in particular – Playstation Move and Wii seem much more suitable for these) but if you’re looking for the types of titles currently available it’s definitely a worthy addition.  I see plenty of room for real-time strategy and fighting games in the future but it’ll be fun to see how this product evolves.