Having tested Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect for the last few days I can confirm that it has the elusive wow factor. Controlling on-screen icons and menus with a wave of the hand is the first sign that this stuff is definitely not of the old generation. Seeing your own avatar mirror your movements introduces the real sense of spookiness which only comes with genuinely ground-breaking technology. And when you are first signed into the service simply by entering the room, the realisation dawns that the age of intelligent technology may finally be upon us.
My other conclusion is that if you are not physically fit before you buy Kinect, you certainly will be after a few sessions of gameplay. Microsoft is very clear that the initial raft of Kinect games titles are aimed at its “non-traditional” audience (implying, not entirely accurately, spotty teenagers shooting each other from the comfort of oversized armchairs) and involve varying levels of energy expenditure from a standing position. You may or may not be relieved to know that there is at least one application which does not require you to abandon the sofa: VideoKinect is the built-in video communications service, allowing Kinect games players to take a break to share their exhausting exploits with friends and relatives around the world.
As for the games themselves, we found the bowling and track and field in Kinect Sports a lot of fun. Bowling illustrates the strengths of gesture-based gaming because the system appears to recognise genuine bowling actions which are impossible for any controller system to replicate. Track and field includes a variety of athletics events, and, yes, the 100m dash involves running on the spot as fast as you can. Microsoft told me that an elderly 80-year old lady in Australia had enjoyed some of these sports. I would like to see this.
Children will love Kinectimals, the classic cutsey furry animal petting game. Choose your favourite cub, cuddle it with your virtual hands, and watch it mimic your actions and learn tricks. Parents of young children should avoid installing this game on their main TV as they will never get to watch TV again.
Kinect Joy Ride didn’t work as well for me. This is the main racing game available at launch, and, yes, you have to pretend to hold a steering wheel. I would love this to have worked more effectively, but this is the point at which virtualisation just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Try it at home: See how long you can keep your hands spaced the same distance apart while moving them around in a circle, changing direction frequently, and leaning your body one way or the other to perform tricks. Sorry, but holding a real steering wheel has just got to be a better experience.
Microsoft hope that Kinect will help it to “more than double” the number of Xbox 360s sold worldwide so far, which is more than 42 million. Our own core scenario forecast
is that Microsoft will fall slightly short of this objective, selling a cumulative 79 million 360s by 2015. Our analysis did allow for further upside to 360 sales as a result of a successful Kinect launch, so we will be tracking its near term progress and impact on core console sales before updating our scenario models.
We should also be clear that Microsoft, along with other platform vendors, tends to talk in terms of cumulative sales. Our analysis also takes account of console retirement and replacement, and this could be a critical issue as we begin to understand Kinect’s impact on wider 360 ownership. It is, after all, being offered for sale as a peripheral to existing 360 owners, as well as packaged with a complete 360 console system. Again, the mix between these two packaging options will be important in determining the real impact on the 360’s overall performance. Sales to existing 360 owners may extend the life of the system in those households but will not help to widen the audience. Microsoft’s primary interest will be to increase sales of the 360 itself to new owners.
Will Kinect succeed? As always, it will depend on how we define success. Kinect is certainly innovative, and as such it will appeal to existing 360 owners who want to explore the new technology for its own sake or find the new games appealing. Kinect should also bring the 360 more forcefully to the minds of existing owners of other consoles who may be tiring of their current platform. The obvious target is Nintendo’s Wii, global sales of which, as we predicted
, are declining by more than 20% this year. While Nintendo works out its post-Wii strategy, Kinect has a window of opportunity of maybe a year to tap into demand from lapsed Wii users.
In spite of the enthusiasm indicated above, Kinect is not without its challenges. The biggest concern for many potential buyers will be the space required in front of the TV. Our system is installed in a traditionally small English cottage, and there is just about enough space to use Kinect for the few games we have tried. Demonstrations of some games I have seen suggest that Kinect owners will need clutter-free floor space of three feet by six feet (1m x 2m) at a minimum distance of six feet (2m) from the sensor in order to get the maximum benefit. Xbox actually recommends a distance of 8-10 feet (c. 3m) from the sensor. It goes without saying that this space must be free of all obstacles, alive or dead, if minor injuries are to be avoided.
Other commentators have noted the potential for lag in motion sensing. The movements in the self-image window or the avatar certainly appear some fractions of a second behind actual motion. The critical question is whether this has an impact on usability, and so far, in an admittedly short series of tests, I have not noticed any significant negative impact on gameplay. There have been occasions when voice recognition and motion sensing do not appear to function perfectly, but I would not draw any conclusions regarding weaknesses in the technology versus the need for familiarisation. Only time will tell whether these are persistent issues which need to be resolved by further technology enhancements.
Kinect’s success will hinge on whether “really clever stuff” is good enough to drive sales, and whether its integration into games is perceived as ground-breaking. Xbox is also taking a risk in focusing Kinect purely on the “active gaming” sector. Nintendo did break new ground with motion control, but Wii games did not always require players to stand up or indeed move around. Microsoft says that developers can deploy Kinect in more “subtle” ways, supporting sit-back gaming. Until such games appear the first titles risk being positioned as a niche market.
But overall Kinect is an impressive attempt to take the TV games console industry in a new direction and we believe it will have the initial positive impact on the 360 business which we predicted earlier this year. Judgment on its longer term success will have to wait a few more months once the novelty has begun to wear off, but it would be very surprising if Kinect’s arrival does not push development of games and other TV-based applications in directions we can today only barely imagine.
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