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Plugged In

Kinect 101: Making room for the future

Plugged In

Buzz's Words

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Kinect is watching.

After a year and a half of hype, speculation, and one big name change, Microsoft's motion-control sensor has finally arrived. Thanks to its lofty promise of true controller-free gaming, analysts expect Kinect to be a pretty big hit this holiday season as it goes head-to-head with competing controllers from Sony and Nintendo.

But forget the projections -- we've had our hands on (or is that off?) a Kinect and a collection of launch titles for a few days now. While it's certainly wowed us with its sci-fi tech, you might not want to ditch your old gamepads just yet. Read on to find out why.

The Basics

Kinect is a motion-sensing camera for the Xbox 360 that lets you play games, navigate menus and control media using gestures and voice commands. No conventional game controller is needed.

Price: A standalone Kinect unit costs $150. The sensor also comes bundled with a 250 GB Xbox 360 Slim for $400 or a 4 GB model for only $300. Every Kinect comes with a copy of the game Kinect Adventures.

Set up: To use Kinect, you'll need an Xbox 360 (any model will do) and a good amount of space (much more on that later). That's just the bare minimum, though. To really use the camera the way it was intended, you'll also want an Xbox Live account so that you can access cool features like videoconferencing and live, streaming sports via ESPN.

If you happen to own an Xbox Slim, set up couldn't be easier: just plug the camera's orange-shaded plug into the like-colored AUX outlet located in the back of your console. If you have an older model, there's an extra step: you'll need to plug in the USB/power cable into the USB port located on the back of the unit, then plug in the attached AC adapter into a wall outlet. Pop in a game, run through a few simple initial calibration steps, and you're ready to Kinect.

Does it work as advertised?

We're betting you have a billion questions about the sensor's capabilities. Here are a few answers.

Can I navigate my Xbox 360 guide using gestures and voice commands?

At the moment, no. From your main 360 guide, you can wave your hand or say "Xbox, Kinect" to 'activate' Kinect, which also automatically takes you to the Kinect Hub, a sort of mini-menu dedicated to Kinect-ready applications. From here you can launch movies or music from Zune, watch sporting events on ESPN, start up a video chat with Video Kinect, sift through your friends list and, of course, tweak Kinect settings.

But you can't actually control the main Xbox 360 guide using Kinect. You can't wave your hand to cycle through the games marketplace or power your system on and off by yelling at it. It's all constrained to the Kinect Hub, and while that does indeed work, it's not exactly what we were expecting.

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Kinect is listening.

Can I really control movies with my voice?

A simple question, with a loaded answer. You CAN control movies ("Pause," "Play," "Rewind", etc.) using Kinect...provided you downloaded them via Microsoft's own Zune service. Netflix movies, DVD movies and, well, pretty much any other kind of movie not optimized for Kinect will currently not work with the sensor. So don't go renting flicks hoping for voice control just yet.

Does it actually mirror your movements?

Yes. Kinect's sensors do a great job of capturing your body accurately. It rarely has issues locating your hand and can even tell when you've switched from right to left. Provided you have the proper space, lighting and camera positioning (again, more on this in a bit), it will smoothly detect your body without you having to do much of anything in the way of calibration. The sensor can even detect the user based on facial recognition, letting you sign in to your user profile just by staring at the camera for a few seconds.

What about lag?

Now we're cooking. In virtually every game and application we tested, we noticed a slight lag between player movements and the on screen avatar (or hand cursor). It varies from product to product -- some games, like Dance Central, seem to work fine -- but by and large, it's perceptible. The good news is that it's mostly negligible and rarely has an impact on your performance in a game. Certainly not a dealbreaker, but it does take a minute to acclimate yourself, so keep that in mind.

Does it work while seated?

This question dogged Microsoft for a few months, but rest easy -- it works just fine if you're seated. However, it really depends on the application. You can't, for instance, play games like Your Shape: Fitness Evolved while loafing on the couch, though frankly, we're not sure why you'd even try that. In our testing, we had no trouble navigating menus or interacting with movies while seated.

How are the games?

So far, so mediocre. Standouts include Dance Central and Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, but like most launch titles, the bulk are basically tech demos wrapped in fancy packages. Check out our Kinect games rundown here.

The Space Issue

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Hope you live in a warehouse.

So you've doubtless stared at pictures of folks playing Kinect in nice, airy, IKEA-like living rooms and figured it was just part of that nifty marketing campaign. Unfortunately, those sleek spaces aren't just for show -- you'll definitely need lots of room to enjoy Kinect.

For solo players, you'll need to stand between six and eight feet away from the camera for it to work properly. Games supporting multiple players at the same time require eight to ten feet. To complicate matters, the camera needs to be placed between two and six feet above the floor on a flat, stable surface (you can also buy a wall or TV mount separately) located as close to the center of the TV as possible. The system is a bit sensitive to sunlight, so you'll need to make sure it's not catching too many U/V rays. Oh, and the sensor needs to be placed near the very edge of whatever it's sitting on so that the vertical view of the lens is perfectly unobstructed. After all, it has to see your legs, too.

Then there's the space needed to play adequately. You will often be using your entire body -- not just a Wii remote or a PlayStation Move controller -- to interact with the games, so you'll need a fair amount of horizontal space for the camera to track your body as you fling it back and forth.

Put all that together, and there's a good chance you'll have to rearrange the living room by shifting couches, removing coffee tables and generally turning things upside down to get it to play nice. Perfect for the giant, empty rumpus room downstairs, but it can be an interior-decorating disaster if your play space is already congested.

The Verdict

There's no doubt that Kinect has a lot going for it, and just about everyone who experiences it will have a "wow" moment where the motion controls, voice commands and gameplay, for lack of a better word, connects. It might remind you of the Wii, but trust us: this is a significant step forward and opens up all sorts of cool possibilities. Find the right game for it and you'll have a total blast. At times, this definitely feels like the future.
Provided the future is sizeable, that is. The spatial requirements are steep; if you're stuck in a dorm room or a cramped apartment, Kinect is simply not worth the effort. Likewise, if you're itching to act out your Minority Report fantasies of opening, closing and resizing a million virtual windows with a wave of the hand, you're in for a bit of a letdown. The same can be said of gamers hoping to experience more traditional 'hardcore' games in new ways. Those are on the burner, but you won't be Kinect-ing with Halo any time soon.

So should you buy one? That depends on your needs. Kinect is best as a showstopping party piece. Fire it up during Thanksgiving, and it will turn even your grumpy Uncle Mark into a delightfully dorky, dancing gamer. It will appeal to both kids and adults in much the same way as the Wii during its initial honeymoon, so if you've got a multi-generational family who game together, it's bound to please -- and since your body is the controller, you won't need to spend extra dough on more gear for more players. But if you prefer to game alone, we recommend waiting until more must-have single-player games are out. Besides, that will give you time to find a bigger house. You're going to need it.

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