(This post was originally written 6/14/2010)
For those of you who don’t know what this title refers to, “Kinect” is the new, official name for Microsoft’s Project Natal, a controllerless motion sensing device for the Xbox 360. It’s being launched in November and was a major focus of Microsoft’s E3 spotlight today. It’s being pitched not only as Microsoft’s answer to the Wii and the soon-to-come Playstation Move controller, but also as a fundamentally different way to control home media. After watching Microsoft demonstrate both aspects of its new technology, I have to say that I think while one is absolutely ridiculous, the other is a vision of the future.
Now, how can this be with a single piece of hardware? Most people, and I count myself among them, still think of the Xbox and its competitors solely as gaming machines. Although Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, though particularly the first two, are working to turn their respective machines into all-in-one media platforms, the simple fact is that people are buying these machines to play games on them. So how is Kinect looking as a game controller that lacks, well, a controller? Unfortunately, it also lacks promise. Most of the games that Microsoft demonstrated seemed to be extremely niche titles, and at least a couple seemed as though they would have just worked better with a couple buttons. Still others bordered on downright asinine. As Microsoft demoed several games built exclusively for Kinect, I found myself saying “this is just stupid” at several points. Although I could go into detail about the achievements or, more often, the deficiencies of these demonstrated games, that is not the point of this note.
No, the point of this note is to highlight the way Kinect changes the home media experience. Game systems are now becoming fully integrated with the online community, featuring connections with media like Netflix, ESPN, and music services, and social networking such as Facebook and Twitter. The companies that make these systems want them to become an essential part of the typical living room, as ordinary as a TV. Obviously, there’s a way to go before this is a reality.
However, Kinect makes the possibility of centralized media more organic, more natural, and therefore more real. In its demonstration of Kinect, Microsoft implied that the future of the all-in-one box is here, fully and accurately controllable by voice and gesture, no remote needed. The technology was demonstrated in selecting a movie, pausing, and precisely forwarding to a specific point, all without pushing a button. There was also a live, albeit rehearsed, video chat with a person on stage and her sister several hundred miles away. Cell phones are making home lines antiquities, but one could easily imagine video calling replacing the home phone, with cell phones, though evolving in capabilities, retaining their originally intended use of being able to contact someone away from home. Microphone and speaker quality and going out of frame are some of the biggest annoyances with current video chat via laptop, but Kinect promises to solve these issues. TV speakers replace small laptop ones. Provided Kinect’s microphone is as good as it appeared to be, that issue is solved. Finally, Microsoft demonstrated Kinect’s ability to, at least in a limited capacity, follow someone with its camera and keep them centered. It’s not hard to imagine people in the near future going about their daily activities while video calling friends and family with a device like Kinect. Kinect is a technology that integrates with the user, rather than the user needing to adapt to the technology.
As I watched Microsoft’s presentation, I found myself thinking that, while I didn’t think much of Kinect as a gaming controller, they really had something here as home media integrator. Perhaps Kinect, and, if it succeeds, the inevitable copycat technologies from other companies, is another step towards full media integration in the home. As long as consoles continue to expand their capabilities, we need not have ten different systems and a universal remote that must be learned. Rather, we would have a single system with ten different functions, all controlled by intuitive, simple voice and gesture commands. Perhaps Kinect will not be the final step towards such an end but that is its promise: that we have rounded the bend and such an elusive end may now be in sight.