Kinect Helps Keep Aging Xbox at the Top of Its Game

Turns out the big consumer electronics highlight of Microsoft’s final CES keynote last night was the six-year-old Xbox.

Microsoft was proud to announce that over its lifespan, more than 66 million consoles have been sold and that 40 million users have signed up for an Xbox Live membership.

To be sure, the Xbox continues to be one of the top-selling videogame consoles, beating both Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii for the past year.

But breathing new life into the device is the motion-controlled accessory called the Kinect, which was introduced right before the holidays in 2010.

Microsoft provided a sales update last night for the Kinect, saying it has now sold 18 million of the units, which represents about one in four Xbox owners. The last update — that 10 million had been sold — was provided 10 months ago when Microsoft said the Kinect shattered the Guinness Book of World Records for fastest-selling consumer device ever.

But the device’s future is a little hazy.

On the Xbox, one of the most popular use cases has been to play dance simulation games. The controller has yet to break substantially into the more hardcore titles. More recently, Microsoft has made it clear that the Kinect will be an integral part of the user interface by providing a wider selection of entertainment options in the living room.

On Dec. 6, the company rolled out a free update to Xbox Live that allowed people to use the Kinect to conduct a Bing search to find games, music and video across several providers. The user interface also allowed people to control the box with voice commands instead of the game controller.

During the keynote, Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer announced the Kinect will be coming to Windows on Feb. 1.

In a follow-up blog post, Microsoft said the hardware will have to be optimized for the Windows platform, and the price will reflect that. The Windows-based device will cost $250, more than double the price of the Kinect for Xbox, currently $120 on Amazon.

Microsoft also points out that it can mark down the cost of the hardware for the Xbox because it is subsidized by the purchase of games.

The biggest change to the hardware perhaps is that the camera will be able to see objects as close as 40 to 50 centimeters away from the device, whereas the Xbox version requires you to stand a few feet away from the TV and use most of your living room.

Microsoft also said Kinect for Windows will support gestures and voice on Windows Embedded-based devices, such as systems in manufacturing, retail and other industries.

There will be a slightly cheaper version, priced at $150, for qualifying educational users, to fuel additional innovation on the platform.

Coming up with compelling reasons to buy the technology will be important, especially since Microsoft is charging such a premium price.

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