Remember console controllers? Those old things you used to make games work? Microsoft is hoping that you'll forget all about them this Christmas, as it's unleashing Kinect, a controller-free motion-gaming peripheral for the Xbox 360. The Kinect sensor bar plus the Kinect Adventures mini-game bundle will set you back £130, or you can buy Kinect bundled with a 4GB Xbox 360 Slim for £250. Is it worth splashing out?
Get up and set up
The Kinect sensor bar is a black, glossy affair that sits under your telly. The bar itself measures around 284 by 70 by 70mm. In case you're having trouble visualising that, just take our word that it's reasonably chunky and, while it'll hardly dominate your AV set-up, it's not the sveltest piece of kit we've ever stuck under our telly.
Set-up is simple. Depending on how old your Xbox is, you'll either have to attach Kinect to your console via USB and hook the sensor up to the mains too, or -- in the case of the new Xbox 360 Slim -- just plug the sensor into a proprietary socket on the back of the console. Cabling for both options is packaged with the sensor bar.
There are three separate cameras housed inside the sensor bar. The central camera is an RGB affair that will identify anyone standing in front of the unit, and it's able to distinguish them from objects in the background -- your sofa, houseplants and so on. Kinect is able to identify 20 separate points of articulation in each person stood in front of it, so it really can build up a fairly accurate picture of where your various limbs are and what they're up to.
The other two cameras flank the RGB camera, and work together to build up a 3D picture of the room and your position within it. The idea is that Kinect knows how close you are to the sensor bar, and that sense of depth lets it judge things like whether your hands are behind your back, or whether you're kicking your legs out in front or behind, for instance.
The standard method of menu navigation is to use your hand as a cursor, selecting from on-screen options by holding your arm still for a few moments. It feels odd a first, but we quickly got used to it.
It's clever stuff, but we should warn you that there's a limit to how sophisticated Kinect can be. It didn't take much effort for us to confuse the sensor, and, during our testing, we noticed numerous glitches and moments of weirdness when the sensor had lost our position or wasn't registering our actions.
Kinect is broadly capable of figuring out where you are and what you're doing, but only broadly -- don't expect to make a virtual cat's cradle or do anything else particularly fiddly with this system. Based on the smattering of launch titles that arrived with our review unit, we predict the best games for Kinect will be those that recognise these technical limitations and ask players to perform easily measurable and basic actions, rather than fiddly manoeuvres.
So that's how Kinect works. But is it fun to play?
Leave your dignity at the door
In a word: absolutely. In more words: absolutely, so long as you don't mind sacrificing all of the dignity you've spent your whole life accruing. We've spent several days playing our way through the launch titles and concluded that it's impossible to maintain any sense of self-respect while playing. Although different games will vary in how physically demanding they are, most will have you leaping, ducking, waving and kicking invisible opponents in the shins. It's embarrassing, but that's a big part of the fun. Similarly, watching your friends flailing around like loonies is a treat not to be missed.
Playing Kinect is also exhausting. We may be out-of-shape journalists, but we defy anyone not to end up panting. If you have kids, the attraction of a gadget that's both entertaining and exhausting will be strong. We found that Kinect frequently lagged or failed in its attempts at tracking us mid-game, but we'd be lying through our teeth if we said that these issues stopped us enjoying ourselves.
Kinect won't satisfy the hard-core gaming crowd, but we think it'll delight children and make for an excellent entertainment piece at any party. There are a few things that might stymie your enjoyment of Microsoft's motion-gaming monolith, though.
Firstly and most importantly -- Kinect requires plenty of playing space. The Kinect instruction manual recommends having 6 feet of clear space in front of the sensor for single-player games, and 8 feet of clear space if you're playing with two people, which you probably will be. We're not here to judge, but flailing around in your house by yourself might be considered sad.
When playing Kinect Adventures, the game urged us to start shunting furniture around, which seemed rather pushy. The same game prevented us from playing in two-player mode until we could prove to Kinect that we were stood far back enough. If your living room is on the small-side, you're going to struggle, and we can't see the average UK bedroom being big enough to accommodate Kinect. It's a major problem that may stop people picking up a Kinect at Christmas.
We found, though, that, once we started playing, Kinect was actually fairly lenient, allowing us to stand quite close to the sensor (3 or 4 feet) before it started bleeping at us to stand back, although this will vary game to game. Kinect also has a redeeming feature in that the sensor bar itself is motorised, and will try to adjust itself to achieve the best viewing angle.
Another problem to bear in mind is that, at launch, only games that support two players simultaneously will be available. Both the Wii and PlayStation Move allow for four players at the same time. Microsoft assures us that Kinect is technically capable of tracking up to six bodies at the same time, but, to be honest, with the space requirements being so large for even two players, you'd need an aircraft hanger to get the kind of floor space needed for four people playing at the same time.
The other issue that's bound to put some people off initially is the price. New tech comes at a premium, and prices are bound to drop in the near future, but £130 for the sensor bar plus a game seems steep.
Kinect won't cater to the hard-core gaming market -- it's just not accurate enough. But it's rollicking great fun. Exhausting and ridiculous, you're guaranteed a giggle if you get the kids involved or set it up at your next party. Just bear in mind that you'll need plenty of space.
Edited by Charles Kloet