Katherine Boehret

Xbox Kinect: Just How Controlling Can a Body Be?

This holiday season, the war against couch potatoes wages on with Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, the latest in motion-sensing video-game consoles. While the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation Move encourage people to stand and play games using familiar gestures and simple controllers, Kinect encourages people to motion their way through games and screens using their bodies as controllers.

Kinect (xbox.com/kinect), a rectangular strip of four microphones, a 3-D sensor and a video camera, is $150 for those who own the Xbox 360. It’s sold in a $300 bundle with the 4-gigabyte Xbox 360 console; $400 with a 250-gigabyte console. (Sony’s PlayStation Move is $100 without the console and $400 when bundled with the 320-gigabyte PS3; Nintendo’s Wii costs $200.)All packages include the Kinect Adventures videogame. There are currently 17 games that work with Kinect, and each costs $50, $10 less than a standard Xbox game.

Kinect can sit on top of, below or beside the TV, plugging into a wall power outlet and the Xbox via a USB cord.The concept used by Kinect has potential far beyond games and might even become a new way of controlling computers of all kinds.

Thirteen of the 17 available Kinect games are rated E for Everyone, and the remaining four are rated T for Teens—a sign that Microsoft is going after a different crowd with Kinect than with its regular Xbox games, which offer a wide range of ratings, including violent games.

It automatically identifies who you are and pauses when you leave its vicinity, so it isn’t hard to imagine this ingenuity controlling all kinds of devices, like a PC, smartphone or tablet.

Over the past few weeks, I played a variety of Kinect games with three other people in the room, one other person in the room and completely by myself. I tried it with a 46-inch, 1080p LCD TV as well as using an old standard-definition TV.

My experiences were mixed. Kinect works beautifully for activities that involve only your body, like exercise classes, running, jumping hurdles, yoga and dancing, with the moves feeling natural and fun. The motion sensor detects even slight movements to reflect what you’re doing on the TV screen. I battled my boyfriend in Dance Central while busting out dance moves called Double Dig ‘Ems and Headwrushes. I sprinted down a virtual track, running in place fast enough to earn a game world record. And I toned my arms and abdominals while punching floating boxes in the Your Shape’s kickboxing class.

But when it came to sports that involved holding or throwing objects like bowling, volleyball or discus, Kinect started to feel a little inauthentic, like I didn’t really have control over the object. When I threw a discus far enough in Kinect Sports to prompt the game’s commentator to shout, “Is that discus a part of the space program?” I didn’t know what I did to get that result.

The same was true for driving a car in Kinect’s Joy Ride game: Players are instructed to hold their hands like they would if they were gripping a steering wheel, turning left or right by moving hands accordingly and leaning back and quickly forward to get a burst of speed. But it’s hard to mimic a motion to accelerate, and I found myself jerking my body all around to get results. My arms also got tired after holding them up for awhile.

Other games, like Kinectimals and Kinect Adventures, play to the Kinect’s strengths by using broader gestures and fewer accuracy-focused tasks. With Kinectimals, I moved my hands to virtually scratch a Bengal tiger cub; the cub even became more familiar with me the more it listened to my voice. I rode a raft in Kinect Adventures by leaning left or right to steer through rapids, jumping up to grab on-screen coins for points and ducking to avoid getting clocked in the head with objects.


Dance Central

In certain games, two people can play simultaneously standing in front of Kinect. The system can identify and sign in up to eight people as they step in and out of play. It recognizes those who are signed into Xbox and playing, so only their gestures maintain control of navigation. Its sensor will identify and log you in a few seconds after you step in front of it. If you walk away in the middle of a game, Kinect will sense that you aren’t there and will pause the game.

Kinect isn’t yet fully integrated into the entire Xbox navigation system. Some tasks still require the old Xbox controller, like opening the Xbox Guide, a quick way of launching anything in the system. Xbox’s Dashboard, which is the first menu you see when you turn on the system, also requires the controller. The Dashboard is separate from Kinect Hub, which lets you use your voice and gestures to do things like opening the system’s disc tray, selecting menus or even pausing a movie—just by saying, “Xbox, pause.” A spokesman said Microsoft plans to integrate these commands throughout the Dashboard. For now, it’s tempting—but futile—to want to use voice and gesture on every screen.

Many Kinect games capture videos of you as you play games and then play them back for you at the end. The results are hilarious. Kinect Adventures gives you a heads-up so you can make an extra silly pose at the right moment. Kinect Sports compiles a highlight reel as you go, playing this video back at the end of your athletic events, goofy sport gestures and all. And Dance Central announces a freestyle dance for all players at the end of each round, capturing video snippets of these moves. Users who are signed into Xbox Live can share these videos with others.


Kinect Adventures

Kinect can also be used to video chat with anyone who’s using Windows Live Messenger and a webcam.

I really enjoyed Dance Central—and not just because I won most of my dance battles (the one who gets the most moves correct wins). This game offered a large variety of songs ranging from old-school rap to Lady Gaga. Each dance was taught in a different virtual venue by an instructor who shouted words of encouragement or instruction, and cheers from the crowd spurred me on.

Navigating the menus in Kinect games is usually more enjoyable with gestures, though it takes a little longer than if you were pressing a controller button to skip ahead. In the Your Shape game, I selected from Personal Training, Fitness Classes and Gym Games using my arm to touch my selection and another red icon below that to confirm it. When I started this game, the sensor scanned my body to measure my height, arm length, leg length and shoulder span, thus customizing games just for me.

In the future, Kinect could use be used to recognize communities like a group of fans all wearing the same team colors while watching a game, in which case the system might display extra on-screen data for that supported team. Another example could include playing along with game shows from home, like reality TV for the masses.For now, Xbox Kinect does well with many games that mimic real-life gestures and motions. Games with specific actions using objects, like rolling a bowling ball, need work to feel more authentic.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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