Surprise! Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect impresses

July 30, 2010: 2:22 PM ET

The company's motion-based controller has the goods to revolutionize traditional console gaming. But will Kinect take off or collect dust?

When Microsoft announced plans for a motion-based controller 13 months ago, many gamers -- myself, included -- rolled their collective eyes. Sure, it could change the way more than 40 million Xbox 360 owners around the world interact with their consoles, but it seemed much more likely that Kinect, then dubbed "Project Natal," would backfire, joining the ranks of ill-received videogame add-ons like Nintendo's Power Glove, Sega's 32X, and the Atari Jaguar CD.

Well, I was wrong.

Microsoft's (MSFT) controller hub -- which features an RGB camera, three sensors (one depth sensor, one motion sensor, and one multi-array microphone) -- tracks full-body movement, facial expression, and voice with a precision that makes Nintendo (NTDOF)'s Wii look like a distant ancestor and ought to make Sony, with it's own motion-based Move controller, somewhat nervous. To boot, the company claims that with the Kinect sensor bar attached to a console, it's possible to navigate the entire Kinect Hub interface on your Xbox 360 without touching a conventional 360 controller. In terms of motion body capture, no mainstream consumer tech product has been so ambitious.

Microsoft will launch Kinect on November 4, but earlier this week I got my own hands-on -- or should I say, hands-off -- demo, and was impressed. Moving from menu panel to menu panel is as easy as waving and swiping your hand; selecting an item just involves letting your hand (and the onscreen cursor) linger for several moments over it. The experience isn't nearly as seamless or as speedy as the glorious futuristic interface UI designer John Underkoffler created for Steven Spielberg's sci-fi thriller, Minority Report, or the UI Tony Stark tinkered with in Iron Man 2, but Kinect's gesture controls will remind you of those interfaces in a very good way. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if people walked away afterward thinking Microsoft's latest device was a significant step toward the day when those interfaces are the norm and not some Hollywood pipe dream.

Almost as impressive is the responsive voice recognition capability, which should cut down on Xbox owners having to reach for the remote. While you're watching a movie, you can verbally instruct the Xbox to stop, fast-forward, rewind, exit out, etc. by calling out easy commands like, "Xbox. Fast-forward." or "Xbox. Pause."

Many of the games -- Microsoft says 15 will be available come launch -- proved more intuitive than many of the Wii games I've spent time with. With Wii games, controls are oftentimes hit-or-miss. While an A-list first-party product like Super Mario Galaxy 2 will have you running, lunging and spinning around space in no time, other products like say, Donkey Kong Barrel Blast are case studies in control schemes gone horribly wrong.

Since there's no hand-held controller to get in the way, many Kinect games rely on body movements that are oftentimes accurately represented on screen. In  Kinect Adventures, which will be packed in with the Kinect sensor bar, leaning to the left while white-water rafting steers your raft in that direction. Your running pace during the track and field activity determines how fast your onscreen avatar sprints, while jumping sees your avatar clear track hurdles.

Two games in particular stood out. Ubisoft's (UBSFYYour Shape: Fitness Evolved initially screams Wii Fit rip-off, but because the Kinect sensor bar scans and monitors 1 million points on the body, the work-out can be much more personalized. While doing yoga poses for instance, the game closely monitors your joint alignment. Not only are players' movements depicted more accurately in the game, but Your Shape also isn't shy about offering constructive feedback when your alignment is say, several degrees off. ("Raise your right arm.") It's like having a personal trainer in your own home.

Put side-by side, Dance Central, from MTV Games, pretty much schools Dance Dance Revolution in nearly every respect. The inherent limitations of DDR's dance pad means the games only recognize if your feet keep up. In Dance Central though, you're seriously hoofing it. Your entire body is recognized -- hips, arms, head -- to the choreography of say, Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" or "MIA's Galang '05". With three different routines for each song -- one for each skill level -- the game can be as forgiving or as harsh as you want, and if you're hitting a particular rough patch during a routine, the game slows down the moves temporarily until you get the hang of things. For now, it's the closest you can get to an actual dance class without having to step inside a studio. And take it from someone who's done both -- it's pretty close.

But while Kinect looks extremely promising, I'm still concerned about the price. When it launches in November, it will be available in two SKUs: an all-in-one package with the new, slimmer Xbox 360 and Kinect sensor bar for $299, and the Kinect bar on its own, with Kinect Adventures packed in, for $150. While the former isn't a shabby deal, the latter's $150 asking price for what's essentially a hardware add-on to a pre-existing game console seems incredibly steep. For that much money, customers can buy an entire game system: a new Xbox 360 Arcade Spring Bundle, which comes with two games, or for $129, a used Wii from Gamestop. Strange. For a product that's being marketed as a device that's supposed to reduce barriers of entry, the $150 tag seems downright antithetical to that mission.

Because of that, I don't expect Kinect will be a blockbuster out of the gate. But those with the extra cash shouldn't let the price stop them from trying out the next generation of gaming. Because that's exactly what Microsoft has achieved with Kinect. The question remains whether Xbox 360 owners will bite.

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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