Eric Johnson

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Four Years Later, How Does the Xbox’s Kinect Stack Up to Its Original Vision?

“Product vision: actual features and functionality may vary” — Disclaimer on Project Natal E3 announcement video.

How’s this for a blast from the recent past? It’s the original video that Microsoft used to introduce Project Natal, its console-connected camera, later renamed Kinect:

With a new, no-longer-optional version of the Kinect at the core of how Microsoft is positioning the Xbox One, now seems like a good time to sort out what features from this dorky video have made it into the real world, and what got left behind in ProductVisionLand. Here’s my scorecard, based on three demos of the new Kinect’s hardware that I sat through with Microsoft representatives this year:

  • Camera recognizes players: This one works as advertised, except that the effect is much subtler. In the demos I’ve seen, games didn’t “speak” when new people entered the room, but the console’s menus changed to acknowledge the number of registered users whose faces it could “see.” | Ruling: Yep.
  • Characters turn to look at players as they walk: Outside of this video, I’ve never seen anyone pace back and forth like Patton rallying the troops while gaming, so it’s neither surprising nor especially off-putting that this is missing. But, as Katie Boehret noted in her review of the Xbox One’s non-gaming features, “As I moved around the living room and talked to my mom [via Skype] from six different places, the Kinect camera panned to follow me, and even zoomed in on my face for the best possible picture.” So this is technologically feasible, though maybe not a high enough priority for games developers. | Ruling: Sort of.
  • Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 9.30.44 PM Second-player-specific motion controls: Man, that pit-crew simulator game looks exciting, huh? Kidding aside, this one’s also MIA. The only Xbox One launch title with Kinect motion-tracking baked in is Zumba Fitness: World Party, a dancing game that lets two players dance at the same time. However, Microsoft said the new Kinect is more accurate than its predecessor, so it’s not impossible that we’ll see secondary motion controls in some game down the line. | Ruling: Not yet.
  • Full-body motion controls: This has been in the Kinect since the beginning, though if the new hardware is as improved as advertised, we should see fewer reports of fuzzy controls. | Ruling: Yep.
  • Scan in real-world objects, turn them into virtual objects in game: Nothing like this is anywhere to be found on the Kinect at present. Hence that disclaimer. | Ruling: Nope.
  • Speak to make video calls: This is one of the much-touted non-gaming features of the Xbox One. So long as the person is already in your Skype favorites list, saying “Xbox, call [name]” starts a Skype video call with that person. | Ruling: Yep.
  • Share outside content in video calls: The closest thing to this in the Xbox One’s current features is Snap, which lets console owners use two apps on the same screen. However, the Xbox version of Skype doesn’t yet support Snapping, and the handful of apps that do are for watching or playing content, not for sharing it with others. But sharing data between two simultaneously open apps seems like a “someday” feature. | Ruling: Not yet.
  • Voice recognition: This one is there, but it doesn’t work the way the video suggests. Rather than keying in on the differences among people’s voices, the Kinect figures out who’s talking because it knows at what angles and how far away people are seated from the camera. A voice coming from one end of the couch indicates that the person seated closest to that end is talking. | Ruling: Yep.
  • “Controller-free entertainment”: The Xbox One boasts a range of motion and voice controls — here’s a full list in PDF form compiled by Microsoft. But in my demos of the Kinect, a company rep covertly used a normal TV remote to adjust the volume since, as Katie pointed out in her review, “saying ‘Volume down’ over and over” can be frustrating. | Ruling: Sort of.

That video does leave one important question dangling: How many pushups can Chuck Norris do? Maybe the Xbox Two (or whatever) will tell us.

(Hat tip to Redditor fp0013 for digging this up yesterday.)

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