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The pros and cons of the game-changing Kinect

I spent a large portion of last weekend flapping and waving my arms about, throwing phantom roundhouse kicks and trying to maintain a zen-like appearance while side-stepping rapids and plugging up leaks. No, I wasn’t attempting kung-fu aboard a sinking rubber dinghy but rather, was engaging Microsoft’s foray into motion control for the XBox360: The Kinect.

The Kinect turns the XBox360 from being predominantly a single-player console into a multiplayer, family-oriented machine with endless possibilities. It’s also buckets of fun, much more so than the Wii in my opinion and XBox‘s full-body, controller-less gaming experience lives up to it’s expectations.

That is not to say it’s completely free from fault. For one, it suffers from tedious spatial requirements and a sometimes annoying interface. It is however, still in its infancy, and is by far the most interactive experience evolved thus far within the motion-gaming genre.

The Pros

1. Easy setup and avatar customisation

Out of the box, the sleek and glossy rectangular piece of hardware appeals to my inner geek almost immediately. The three cameras and green LED on the face, coupled with the motorised stand (which auto-adjusts when you run the setup) has a robotic-like feel, so much so that at times it feels as if the Kinect is watching and scanning your every move with its green screen interface.

Setup is fairly straightforward with minimal hardware requirement: The Kinect connects to your XBox via either USB or an expansion port on the back of the console. The first time you start up your XBox with the Kinect plugged in, it will begin scanning the room for any human life and once the Kinect Tuner has found you (try waving if it can’t), it will run through a series of calibration tests so that it is setup properly for your gaming space.

Beware though, you will need a lot of room for a feasible gaming area in order for it to work properly. By far the most fun to be had on setup is the avatar customisation which, once done, the clever Kinect ID interface will use to identify you and sign you in automatically.

2. Kinect Adventures (comes bundled with the Kinect)

The bundled title is a clever marketing strategy in that it boastfully shows off the full-body gaming experience that the Kinect promises. “Adventures” comprises five mini-games: 20 000 Leaks, River Rush, Rallyball, Reflex Ridge and Space Pop. Each one is very easy to learn and lots of fun for young and old.

The theme, graphics and family-friendly interface are all rendered in a cartoony way and the music is upbeat and lively. From side-stepping rapids in the River Rush to fixing up leaks in a submerged tank to popping bubbles in outer space, there’s something for everyone and although most of us have seen motion control games like this on the Wii, its unlikely you’ve seen it looking as good as “Adventures”.

My favourite still has to be the Rallyball game, which has you using your legs, arms and whatever limbs you can afford to send a virtual ball hurtling towards some crates. Be warned though: this is not a game you can unwind with, it’s bound to get your blood pumping and will leave you catching your breath. It’s aimed towards a younger audience and kids of all ages will love it. Although, once the initial appeal has worn off, it can become a bit redundant but is the perfect introduction to the Kinect’s capabilities.

3. No controllers so no memorizing buttons

My worst fear when considering buying a motion-control console was watching in horror as my three year old sent the controller hurtling into space while attempting a tricky virtual tennis move. Luckily, with the Kinect, there are no controllers and thus no broken (expensive) controllers on the floor. And because all of the gaming interfaces I looked at already include a hands-on (or is that hands-off ?) tutorial, the learning curve involved in knowing which button to press and when is also eliminated. Again, this makes it easier for kids.

4. A new genre of gaming

While still in it’s infancy, it is transforming not only gaming, but other forms of computing, technology and entertainment. It’s clear to see that the voice-recognition capabilities it offers, coupled with the full-body motionless interface could easily be integrated into mainstream hardware and computing. Think of the possibilities: being able to wake up in the morning and send requests to half of the electronics in your home using voice recognition: “XBox, coffee – black, one sugar.”

The Cons

1. Requires too much room

Space is a major negative issue. The Kinect requires that you stand at least 7 ft away (or 9 ft for two players) from the sensor in order to play, which posed a major problem for me as my spacial capabilities didn’t allow for that much room. And I needed to move my coffee table out of the way each time I needed to play, which got rather annoying and will be a deal breaker for most people who can’t afford the space.

Also, at times during play, it would be advisable to map out your playing boundaries. I kept overstepping mine and needed to wait for the sensor to keep adjusting again before play could resume.

2. Expensive

The standalone Kinect goes for anything between R1800.00 to R2000.00, which, compared to the R350.00 Playstation Move motion controller, is extremely pricey for an add-on peripheral. (But then again, to fully appreciate the PS Move you need the starter bundle with the extra controller which more or less comes to the same price).

3. Excessive hand-hovering

By far the most annoying part of the Kinect is the hand-over hovering menu system. While some of the games (such as Dance Central) omit this, the built in XBox menu interface has you hovering your arm over menu blocks for three seconds before anything happens. This gets quite tedious and after a few minutes you’ll wish they just employed a simple swish-and-flick interface as opposed to hover-over-arm-steady.

4. Voice recognition locale issues

While not a major drawback, it seems that voice recognition is not supported in South Africa…or Australia or Germany, India and many other countries. It is however supported in the following locales and languages: US English; Canada English, UK English, Japan Japanese, Mexico Spanish. The workaround is to change your current locale to either U.K. or U.S. to enable English voice recognition. While this is fine, it can be annoying when you consider that you would want to use the Kinect’s speech recognition capabilities on your XBox Live account, particularly from an online, multiplayer gaming perspective.

I was rather hopefully envisioning a Modern Warfare Kinect plugin which allowed you full body motion within a gaming arena but including voice recognition so you could speak a command to freeze frame that memorable moment where you blew your best mates head off with a plasma rifle.

The XBox forums indicate that updates will be available to enable voice recognition for your locale in the near future but I really can’t quite fathom why they wouldn’t integrate the U.K. and U.S. English voice software into other countries temporarily or as a default?

Five game titles I hope to see on the Kinect:

The current Kinect titles are good but are pretty standard entries into the motion-control genre. Nintendo have quite a few working titles out there already, and it’s only a matter of time before Microsoft catches up.

Here are a few titles I would love to see:

1. Any Star Wars title: Just for being able to use a virtual lightsaber and for waving my hands around confusing stormtroopers with the force.

2. Harry Potter Quidditch: A flying broomstick, dodging bludgers and throwing quaffles through hoops will be so much more real with the Kinect.

3. Halo: As the brand that made the XBox the geek console of the decade, it’s only logical that Halo evolves into this genre, giving the player the ultimate FPS experience as you become a full-body representation of Masterchief.

4. Star Trek: Okay, so this appeals more to the inner geek in me but the Starship Enterprise is an augmented reality-junkies dream and provides the perfect interface for the Kinect to latch onto. Mind you, there probably won’t be much movement (apart from falling over when the shields have been breached by a Romulan Warbird) but all I really want is to be able to say “onscreen”, “beam me up”, “warp speed Mr Sulu, engage” and of course, “make it so”.

5. Mortal Kombat: I’ve always been a huge fan of the fighting genre and initially rooted for Tekken, but Mortal Kombat has fatalities and death moves which would make the controller-less full-body gaming experience so much more awesome. And with the added voice capabilities, you would probably want to shout ‘finish him’ !

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