Sunday, July 18, 2010

Connecting with Kinect

I am fortunate to live in an area not far from a Microsoft Store, and, being suddenly full of free time, I decided to head over there to check it out.

I walked in and was greeted by one of the retail sales grunts, who pointed out the 3D TV at the front of the store. She indicated that, not only was it being driven by a Windows PC, but the Xbox 360 connected to it was also 3D capable. Unfortunately, they didn't have a 3D game available for demonstration. I thought it was interesting, considering what a big deal Sony has made of hyping up their system's 3D capabilities, that the 360's capabilities don't seem to be getting any press.

I asked if the Kinect was on display, and she pointed to the back fo the store. I asked if there was an official price for it, and she said, without any hesitation, "$149." Is that an official confirmation of the price, or just a random employee answering a question without knowing the weight of what I tried to ask? Probably the latter, but I'm not hopeful about the former.

I made my way to the display area in the back of the store. A group of young kids, probably around kindergarten age, all in matching T-shirts, were taking turns playing the Kinect Adventures game that was presented at this year's E3. It was an opportunity to see how kids reacted to the new device, and, in general, the reaction was favorable. The kids seemed to have a good time. Some were more into it than others, but I don't think it was any worse than one might expect from a group of kindergarteners at any activity.

Once the kids were done, and as the Microsoft Store rep was ushering them out, I was able to walk up and get a close look at the device. Its black, shiny, slightly angled shell has a very similar look to the new 360. It's about a foot and a half wide, stands barely a foot tall on its stand, and pretty much looks exactly like its pictures. I actually think it looks a little smaller in person, which only means it'll be easier to place at home. Although it doesn't help the impression that it's way overpriced, when you can take one look at it and think, "$150 for that little thing?"

The Microsoft Store rep came back and asked if I wanted a turn. She started up the demo with a wave of her hand, and we played the rafting game. Almost exactly as the E3 videos, we raced down a whitewater canyon, steering the raft by stepping left and right and getting air by jumping in unison. Except we didn't seem to have much success. I think the left-right movement might've been hampered by my not wanting to run into the Microsoftie, so I was a little conservative. My jumping, it became apparent, was severely mis-timed. The game takes actual pictures of game play, and at the jumping moments, the Microsoftie was in the air when I was very clearly still on the ground. She had obviously had a lot more practice in knowing when to jump at the correct time, and the game knew it. The cynic in me would say she knew the limits of the system and how to "correct" for them, but there are just too many variables for me to identify the issue — was it that, was it that I was mis-reading the timing of the game itself, was the software not cueing my jump clearly, was it my own slower reflexes?

Next, a group of three older teenage girls arrived. I played the next game with one of them, the handcart race. Again, my lateral movement seemed to be a little under-accepted. I had more trouble moving left than right, and again, I'm sure that was due to my own hesitation in moving left so as not to slam into the other player standing there. But for making my avatar move to the right side of a handcart that's barely two avatar-widths across, it seemed like it wanted me to shift my own body two or three whole steps to the side. Is that a Kinect problem, or a software problem? While some people may say they're one in the same (if the games are crap, it doesn't matter how good the console is), I think it's an important distinction (not all 360 games turned out like Perfect Dark Zero, which wasn't bad but definitely wasn't the best the 360 would ever have to offer), and, unfortunately, it's impossible to say which is at fault. Again, I had a little issue timing my jumping, but my ducking was a little better.

I stepped aside after this game to let the other girls play. I would've liked to play more, to get more of a "feel" for Kinect, but I didn't want to hog the system. As I stepped aside, though, I realized that my heart was racing, and I was a little out of breath. I suppose it was a good thing I was taking a break. I make no pretense about being in any kind of healthy cardiovascular shape, but I was surprised at how much of a workout those two minigames had given me.

The two remaining girls stepped in front of the camera, and the console started up the "wall-ball" game, where dodge balls are smacked towards blocks until they bust. They were a little uncoordinated, which seemed to be a function of their own hand-eye coordination and not a fault of the game itself. This game moved a little faster, and it seemed to me like any input lag would be very pronounced in this demo. The Microsoftie kept encouraging the players to "swing earlier", which felt like a need to compensate for input lag (although, there were definitely times when the girls' own lack of coordination was clear in that they were physically swinging after the ball passed their avatar — could this be a candidate for being improved by 3D?).

I mentioned input lag, and I do believe it was there. However, I don't believe it was extreme. In the moments when I could see a 1:1 coorelation between the avatar and a human body (including my own), the lag was extremely slight — I'd say within a tenth of a second. It's visually perceptible, but barely. It wasn't nearly as bad as the Microsoft press conference, ironically, made it look (I'd almost bet money there was a video signal delay getting the display on the huge screen behind the presenters that made it look a little more laggy than what I witnessed).

For input calibration, there was none. A player walked in, and that was it. Now, the Microsoftie did "guide" people a bit. She was encouraging the kids to stand a little further apart. This could've easily been as much for their own safety as it was for Kinect's benefit (there's a lot of flailing around). She did, however, make the comment "not too far apart, or you'll 'disappear' from the game". Well, I guess that's only fair; the camera's not going to have a fish-eye field of view. One thing that did surprise me, though, was that when one of the kids' adult companions came and grabbed the kid's shoulder to give them a little tug to help pull them apart, the avatar extended its hand to the left, as if it identified the adult's hand and arm touching the shoulder as the kid's. It seemed like a bit of a tracking error that Kinect was supposed to not make (i.e. not get confused by a random distraction entering the camera range), but perhaps physical contact will throw it off.

The Microsoftie did mention that there was a bit of a "calibration" process where Kinect learns the layout of your living room, where furniture is and such. What it does with this information, I don't know; and how much of this information is important, I also don't know — will it get confused if my room is clean one day, and the kids have left their toys all over the floor the next?

So, all told, what do I think? Not much different than I thought before, to be honest. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was playing something much like a Wii, even if I didn't have a remote strapped to my wrist. I do think my kids will love it, seeing how much fun they have on the Wii whenever they visit their grandma. Technologically, it's impressive, how it identifies anyone who walks up to it and lets them play without any extra setup. I just don't know what to think. I'm a hardcore gamer, and it's not made for me; that much is certain. My kids are young enough to straddle the line easily. My wife has shown some interest in the fitness and latin dance games, so there may be some hope there. It's still hard for me to get excited about Kinect for me. But for my family? Yeah, I think it'll be good. Chances are good we'll have one in the home for Christmas.

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