Trust me, it's not cynicism. I'd love to be excited about the new Xbox Kinect, and if you'd told me about it a couple of years ago, I'm sure I'd have been eagerly pre-ordering it just like I did the Wii.
Unfortunately for this year's big toy, there's a small problem keeping me from being excited: I've played with one for more than five minutes.
For the moment, that's all the Kinect I feel the need for in my life. Progress is a funny thing. We need the small steps so that the big ones can happen, and we need people to spend money on them so that there's a reason for companies to keep working. To that end, I actually hope Kinect does well.
The ideas behind it are definitely impressive. Your body is the controller. Wave at the screen and magic happens. Interact without the need for extra devices.
Unfortunately, we've been burned like this before – virtual reality, augmented reality, Nintendo Wii, Sony EyeToy. Somewhere between premise and product, the magic has a tendency to slip away, or at least be crushed under the weight of reality.
We keep spending our money on the next big thing, hoping that this time it'll be different, but secretly knowing that no matter how good it is, or how close it gets to perfection, it'll be gathering dust soon enough.
The problem with Kinect isn't that the technology isn't interesting, it's that it doesn't really gel with modern gaming. That could be a good thing if it leads to brand new ideas, but I suspect that we're more likely to see what happened to the Wii – lots of party games and standard designs, only with the Kinect equivalent of waggling the controller.
Purely in terms of wish fulfilment, it's difficult to see how most of the obvious game interactions could be done well without some kind of tool. Not only is gripping a steering wheel peripheral more efficient than holding your hands out like one, it feels better. You can't feel like a master swordsman just by clenching one fist and waving it.
As for guns, we've yet to see how Kinect plans to handle them, but what can it ultimately offer beyond pointing two fingers at the screen and yelling 'bang'? If anything, Kinect's open controls feel more limited than a primitive controller.
Something like a DualShock may be more of an abstraction of the action than making the right moves, but it quickly becomes invisible. When you press B, you press B – the console doesn't have to work out whether you really meant to press X, or bring up the menu, or were just picking your nose.
Playing via a console also removes the subconscious expectation of haptic feedback. Hitting an enemy with a force feedback rumble effect can feel weighty, but swinging your fist through empty air in exchange for a mere sound effect has no, well, punch.
All this said, despite my lack of interest in the initial selection of games – most of which seem to be variants of old stuff like Wii Sports, Nintendogs and dancing titles – the technology does appeal.
As a multimedia control system, Kinect definitely has merits (even though I suspect that a traditional remote control would be faster and less prone to error), and there'll certainly be some interesting games and projects that make good use of it in the near future.
The irony is that, right now, the best use for Kinect wouldn't be replacing existing control systems, but supplementing them instead. Head-tracking to control vague camera movements. Leaning around corners in-game by actually leaning.
On a wider level, maybe detecting the number of people in the room and adjusting a few settings automatically. Think along the lines of force feedback – the sort of things you don't really notice until you don't have them any more.
Kinect with the PC
Transplant that to the PC, and software developers could finally live the dream of writing an application that really does watch out for the worst possible moment to crash and delete all your hard work.
The trouble is that such subconscious improvements aren't the kind of things that sell £130 worth of hardware, or warrant claims of extending a console's life by several years. Just ask Nintendo, which has yet to get much other than laughter for its Wii Vitality Sensor (a pulse monitor) despite its possibilities for action, horror and fitness games. Still, there's time.
The real benefit of Microsoft's Kinect push isn't that it'll take over the world, but that a technology with definite potential will spread. If and when we see some great games that use it, I'll consider picking one up. Until then, my mouse, keyboard and standard Xbox controller are all I need to control my digital life.
First published in PC Plus Issue 302
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