With a lavish Cirque de Soleil circus show (and quite a bit of poncho-wearing nonsense), Microsoft renamed Natal as Kinect and finally let eager journalists get their hands on (well, their bodies in) the games.
The Kinect module turns out to be a relatively slimline box containing the dual IR sensors, RGB camera and microphone array, and the whole shebang sits on a motorized stand that allows Kinect some ability to track players around the room. One result of this is that, unless you have the new Xbox 360 console (more on this later), you’ll need a separate power supply.
The good news is that it’s very simple to use. Most games we tried took seconds to calibrate, if that, and after that Kinect just seems to work. It’s weird to see a generic Avatar suddenly copying your actions, but using gesture recognition to navigate menus and select options quickly becomes second nature; just reach for the item of your choice, or sweep your arms through the selection, and you’re there.
The games on show weren’t going to appease the hardcore gamers, but then we suspect that’s not the point. Kinect is all about upstaging the Wii with family friendly games that have a serious ‘wow’ factor. Kinect Adventures, for example, had you steering a raft down river rapids by stepping and leaning left and right, or jumping to get air on island ramps. Joyride, meanwhile, was a basic cartoon racer with race and stunt modes, where you steered your vehicle by holding an imaginary steering wheel, and leaning into the tougher corners.
Kinect Sports revealed bowling and hurdling games, while Kinectimals has players interacting with an adorable baby tiger on the screen. Hard-bitten games journalists sneered, but it’s the sort of stuff that Kid X visiting Kid Y’s family will see and immediately start a pester campaign to get one. What’s more, Kinect seems to out-do the Wii when it comes to dance and fitness games. There’s no need to mess around with dancemats or wave a controller: Kinect doesn’t have to guess if you’re doing the moves properly or keeping up the pace – it knows.
On the negative side, there’s no question that there’s enough lag in the process to make it hard to make Kinect work with more twitchy games, meaning Kinect is going to have a hard time convincing the Xbox 360’s current primary audience of hardcore gamers. Playing games that need quick responses, you almost need to predict when you need to move, then move a fraction of a second before to get things right.
In any case, this was a strong showing for a technology that might prove key to growing Microsoft’s audience in the casual and family crowds. Pricing won’t be known until August, but the launch is confirmed for November.
New Xbox 360
To complement Kinect, Microsoft failed to surprise anyone by announcing a new slimline Xbox 360, but did surprise everyone by announcing it would be available now. The new Xbox 360, with built-in WiFi and a 250GB hard drive, is certainly a lot smaller than the old one, and also has the advantage that it obviates the need for a secondary power supply for Kinect – it can provide the juice the module needs. Whether it’s quieter or not we’ll have to see: your correspondent never had any time with one away from a glass case or the constant racket of the E3 show floor.