Xbox 360 Kinect Puts ‘Play’ Back In ‘Gameplay’

Xbox 360 Kinect Puts ‘Play’ Back In ‘Gameplay’

I can’t remember the last time I jumped so high. Kinect Adventures looked so lame in Microsoft’s press conference just two days ago. But now I find myself leaping and lunging like a stuck lamb to win. I’m frolicking.

Hop to go faster. Dodge left to slide by a bumper. A glance to my right to eye my competition who, a few moments before, had shared a raft with me as we negotiated a path down a river, leaning and jumping in tandem – another unexpectedly enjoyable experience.

My heartbeat quickly accelerating, I realised something: The Wiimote rewards gamers’ proficiency at exercising the least possible physical exertion – indeed, if you get too frantic the Wiimote can stop registering your motions altogether – while with Kinect, I found myself exaggerating everything.

The experience of Kinect Sports is much the same – I underestimated the title’s fun until I actually tried it out. Less like Wii Sports than Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, a track-and-field-style hurdle game requires me to pump my knees high into the air, then jump at appropriate times, then pump my knees some more. While Kinect’s lag means I have to make my leaps earlier than expected, the frenetic and earnest competition (a testament to Kinect’s accuracy and Kinect Sports‘ game design) keeps it fun.

There’s something very special about using Microsoft’s Kinect system, something that separates it from every other combination of software and hardware I’ve ever used. Kinect adapts and accommodates the user. I’m not learning it; it’s learning me.

Maybe I’m tossing around the word “learn” a bit too liberally. Kinect actually works because it’s already learned how humans move thanks to Microsoft’s (Prime Sense’s) research – intelligence is built into the box before I step in front of it.

I’ve never felt that a computer understood me – a flesh-and-bone human – so well. More than once my fellow humans, designers of the very games I was playing, attempt to explain and clarify how to play.

Nice people, but they’re just getting between me and my new friend.

* * *

But another bundled game in Kinect Sports‘ impresses me in a completely different way: bowling. This game really showcases the platform’s flexibility to natural human movement. I reach to my right to pick up my ball, asking, “Can I take a normal 3-step bowling approach?” The designers look at one another nervously. They say that I might want be careful not to extend myself beyond Kinect’s radius of sight.

I get the impression that bowling hasn’t been tested with this approach in mind. I try it anyway, shortening my steps a bit, but fully pantomiming bowling all the same. The ball rolls down the lane without a hitch.

And while designers admit that, unlike Wii MotionPlus bowling, the game can’t track spin based upon a twist of my wrist – instead you exaggerate the motion within the entire scope of your swing – the flexibility keeps me immersed. I granny-roll the ball between my legs. I throw the ball, side-arm style, down the lane. I’m a horrible bowler but Kinect doesn’t mind.

After I take more than my fair share of time bowling, I look to Jason and ask if he wants to hop in. The PlayStation Move had forced me to stand in one place with two…err…spheres on my chin to calibrate a single game, but Kinnect lets Jason and I just swap spots instantly. Without any jitters, hang-ups or confusion, Kinect lets Jason pick up where I leave off, mid-frame.

* * *

My shirt is damp. I’m thirsty. Ironically, I haven’t even tried Your Shape: Fitnessyet, Ubisoft’s exercise game.

Years ago, I’d bought Nike’s Kinetic for the PlayStation 2. It never quite worked. My living room lighting combined with Sony’s camera technology prevented the game from seeing me correctly. More recently, I bought Wii Fit. With limited real-time feedback in response my own movement, I was mostly just disappointed that Wii Fit wasn’t Kinetic.

Your Shape fulfils my admittedly high expectations. When I step in front of the game, it measures not only my height, but the distance from my hand to the floor. It displays a mockup of my internal frame and can pretty accurately isolate various muscle groups.

The gelatinous character aesthetic is a bit odd for certain. But as I run through various modes, like a general fitness class or yoga, I realise that body is my body. While Kinect often lags, I can see whether or not my form is correct almost instantly – before a handy wireframe points out the kinks in my downward dog or a virtual instructor yells for me to pump my arms higher.

I never worry about leaving Kinect’s traceable space. I’m never concerned that the camera wasn’t registering my poses or exercises correctly. And as I casually study my avatar, I pull my shoulders back and gut in. Much better. Boy, do I have horrible posture.

* * *

“What do you think?” asks Wil Mozell, a Microsoft GM who oversees many of the companies designing Kinect’s important launch titles.

“It’s great,” I say. “But what about the lag? Will you ever fully eliminate it?”

“We can get rid of a lot of it. Keep in mind, these games are 80-to-85% there. There’s still lots of optimisation left to do.”

“But what about the hardcore games? The FPSs, the gameplay that requires 100% accuracy?” I push.

“Kinect isn’t going to replace the controllers that have worked for those types of games for the last decade – that’s not what we’re trying to do. Kinect will work alongside those controllers for hardcore games. For throwing a grenade, for vocal commands, for…”

“For head tracking??”

“Yes, head tracking! Exactly.” He gets a big smile. He wants to say more. Bound by Microsoft confidentiality agreements, he can’t.

* * *

The last game of the day is the best. It’s called Dance Central. It’s made by Harmonix, original makers of Guitar Hero and now-makers of Rock Band. And I think Dance Central will be the killer app that sells the public on Kinect.

The premise is simple: Music plays; I perform dance moves to the beat. And I don’t mean Dance Dance Revolution-style glorified line dancing. I mean Harmonix has hired a full-time choreographer who’s created 600 moves in the game, from aggressively crossing my arms like a B-Boy, to confidently thrusting a finger in the air like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Unlike other Kinect games, I don’t clearly see my 1:1 avatar. Harmonix has gracefully hidden my rough movements behind a pre-animated character. The platform’s is versatile. While I don’t truly see myself beyond a tiny silhouette hidden on the edge of the screen, I know exactly what I’m doing wrong thanks to the appendages on the lead dancer which occasionally glow red as a blister.

– that I’m not really the lead dancer that I see – I don’t easily grasp why it’s so fun and addictive. (This unpleasant cognitive frisson has ruined many Wii games for me.) Maybe that’s the brilliance of an invisible interface, a system that tracks my body and understands what it’s doing rather than randomly guessing.

Kinect is freeing designers to think harder about gamers. And it’s freeing gamers to think harder about, well, nothing at all.

Kinect is wonderful for what it will do for full motion gaming. Kinect is wonderful for what it will do for the home theatre and for hardcore gaming and for cultivating more “play” in gameplay.

But Kinect’s most clever trick is beyond any of this. Kinect is more than an abstract “human interface device” but something far more subtle: an input device that can look at bunch of waving limbs and understand, “Hey! That’s a human!”