Microsoft used its E3 2010 press conference today to unveil a slew of news and games. A new black Xbox 360 slim with 250GB hard drive that I can’t wait to get in my hands? Check. A Gears of War 3 demo, complete with four-player co-op elements, live on stage? Check. Call of Duty add-ons available first on Xbox 360? Check. ESPN providing access to more than 3500 sports events via Xbox Live? Check. But the biggest news, the announcement that overshadowed all the other pomp and circumstance, actually sprang from a completely made-up word: Kinect.
Part “kinetic energy” and part “connect,” the Xbox 360-exclusive Kinect is the new name for what had been known as Project Natal. Say what you will about the name, but as a full 24 hours have passed since Microsoft’s big Kinect/Cirque du Soleil unveiling at E3 2010, I’ve actually come to like the name. Sure, it’s steeped in marketing cheese, but keep in mind how quickly the word “Wii” grew on the gaming public. After just one day, Kinect has already become common gaming lexicon.
But hardcore gamers aren’t really what Kinect is all about. Halo Reach, Gears of War 3, even the next Forza aren’t exactly going to be best played using gestures instead of a traditional controller. Sure, tossing grenades using your hands rather than a button will be fun, but for how long? Pulling the .50-cal up to your eye with real-world gestures will be novel for a week or so, but at what point with John Q. Hardcore Gamer tire of the mechanic and actually want to click the thumbstick instead? There’s definitely a place for Kinetic on the Xbox 360, but I don’t believe the “core” gamer lives there. If they did, the Vision Camera would’ve been a larger deal than it is. Instead, Kinect is Microsoft’s answer to the Wii and PlayStation Move, both of which strive to reach mommy bloggers and so-called casual gamers. And having seen what little of Kinect I have, it seems like Microsoft might actually be on to something that could finally topple the Wii.
Before I’m crucified for being a Microsoft fanboy, be aware that while the Xbox 360 was my console of choice early in this console generation, I’ve been drawn more toward the PlayStation (PS3) for the past two years due to its industrial design, Blu-ray Disc drive, whisper-quiet hardware and Bluetooth controls. I’ve even recommended the PS3 over the Xbox 360 hands-down for the past 24 months. So when I say Kinect has the potential to be much more than a gimmick, I say it with a completely straight face and in all seriousness. Kinetic and the Xbox 360 slim could very well be the one-two punch to knock Nintendo off the leaderboard once Kinect launches on November 4.
Nintendo built an incredible install base with the Wii in large part by ignoring gamers altogether. Mommy bloggers and mainstream media were given preferential treatment and more than a few free consoles. In exchange, those so-called casual gamers took Nintendo from dead last with the GameCube to a resounding first place with the Wii. Whether it was the pick-up-and-play games, the approachable mechanics, the simple controls or just the novelty of using motion controls, the Wii and Wii Sports took the world — not just the gaming world — by storm.
But regardless of one’s gaming prowess, there are only so many rounds of Wii Bowling to be played before people crave something new, something fresh, something a bit more advanced than the marginal improvements of Wii Motion Plus. Sony’s trying to fill that gap with PlayStation Move, which we’ll learn more about this week, but that setup’s wireless controls and funky colored buttons are pretty derivative of the Wii’s Nunchuck and Wiimote, when you boil it all down. With Kinect, Microsoft is taking interactive games in an entirely new direction, one that represents the true next step in gesture-based entertainment. Wireless controllers and funny-colored balls? No need. Just use your appendages and face instead.
Since we all love lists, below are four reasons Kinect for Xbox 360 could finally topple Nintendo’s dominance with the Wii. While there are certainly reasons Kinect could fall flat or fail completely, the chances don’t seem quite as high this time. Here are four explanations why.
Video Kinect. Much like the Xbox Live Vision Camera, the new Kinect will double as a videoconference tool and could capitalize on the excitement over “video calls” that the iPhone 4 generated last week. What’s more, Xbox Live is the perfect environment for Kinect’s video-chat functions due to the online network’s scale, speed and organization. In addition, Video Kinect will integrate with users’ Windows Live Messenger contact lists, thus opening the gates for Xbox 360 users to chat with people who don’t even own an Xbox 360 but might be open to the possibility because of their exposure to the console via this new interface. Without the actual camera in Kinect, none of this would be a possibility. But Kinect is clearly about more than just gestures. It’s about, well, “connecting.”
Movement Tracking: Along with the literal video capture capabilities of Kinect, the peripheral will be able to track people’s movements and pan the camera left, right, up and down accordingly. This ensures two things. First, it means that the aforementioned video chats should avoid the “you’re out of the frame, gramps” issues that the Vision camera struggled with, making each interaction seem that much more natural. And “natural” is important for reaching non-core gamers. Second, and perhaps more important for the gaming side of Kinect, the camera tracking could eliminate the need to “stay within the lines” of a sensor bar stuck to the top of the TV. This setup was a total pain back in the days of the Power Glove, it was a challenge with Sony’s EyeToy, and it continues to be a hassle with the Nintendo Wii’s Wiimote setup as well. But a camera that not only tracks player movements but actually moves along with them? Now you’re talking advanced technology and useful tools.
Better Graphics: Remember the comment about Wii owners wanting to “move up” in their sophistication and experience? Well, we all have a little graphic whore inside of us, so the fact that Xbox 360 has infinitely better graphical capabilities than the Wii helps Kinect’s chances of reaching people who are looking for something more than an overly simplified sprite. Yet rather than reinvent the wheel, Microsoft is providing with Kinect a bevy of, shall we say, “familiar” games for would-be Wii owners that just happen to look sharper, more vivid and more “grown up.” It wouldn’t be unfair to say Microsoft is “ripping off” Wii Sports, but at this point who isn’t? Instead, Kinect provides a bit of a baby step into “next gen” gaming by giving non-core gamers an easily approachable and arguably easy gameplay experience, just in a prettier wrapper than the Wii could ever provide. With the home-entertainment world so attuned now to 3D TVs and 3D-enabled Blu-ray players, don’t underestimate the power of a little spit-shine to the mainstream consumer. Nintendo’s non-HD strategy may have seemed shrewd for the first few years of this hardware generation, but the world’s high-def temp is definitely on the rise.
An Existing Install Base: Kinect will be born November 4 into a world where more than 30 million Xbox 360s have been sold to date. The Wiimote and Nunchuk, on the other hand, took their first breath when the first Wii left a store’s shelf. Where Nintendo’s motion-based gaming system built its base essentially from scratch, Microsoft’s Kinect will bring motion-controlled gaming to an install base that’s already strong, then add incremental customers to the fold. If you’re looking at pure numbers, the potential is there for the Xbox 360 and Kinect to evolve and grow at a much higher rate, which in turn could lead to more diverse and numerous motion-based products. Let’s just hope they don’t all involve petting faux tigers named Skittles, or we’ll be forced to make a collective puking motion in the living room.
There are all sorts of reasons Kinect could make the Xbox 360 trump the Wii. There are also all sorts of reasons it could take all that kinetic energy and jump straight off a cliff. Microsoft has a uniquely sketchy track record with the Xbox hardware, from an arguably premature jump into broadband gaming on the original Xbox to a Vision Camera that seemed ahead of its applications to the promise of avatar-based games that were more than a year late to their own party. But with Kinect, Microsoft finally seems to have aligned its stars. Jokes abounded when the first Xbox launched about the console being “a Halo adapter for my TV,” but that singular title drove Microsoft forward. Those same jokes still haunt the Wii and Wii Sports, but Nintendo’s laughed all the way to the bank. Clearly, new technology and new systems rely on high-quality games to drive adoption. The first few games in display for Kinect show promise, but Microsoft needs to push the envelope a bit more in a very short time period if it wants to make a serious run at the Wii. Kinect seems poised to do just that, but poise and actual forward motion are two very different beasts.
– Jonas Allen