Microsoft's Kinect motion-tracking system for the Xbox 360 looks perfectly OK for gaming. Maybe it's a Wii-fighter, maybe it isn't. But beyond gaming, Kinect might be Microsoft's chance to own the living room - and everywhere else we live.
We learned a few things about Kinect (now-abandoned-codename: "Natal") today. We saw a few games, including the inevitable Wii Sports clone, as well as more compelling lifestyle titles like Your Shape: Fitness. Extensions to existing titles, like the look-ahead head-tracking in future Forza racing games also look like they'll add practical verisimilitude to existing genre games.
But it's the nebulous "entertainment" category in which Kinect seems to offer something entirely new, not just for gaming, but for interfaces with our electronics in general. It's exciting, futuristic stuff - if only Microsoft follows through with Kinect's promise.
Microsoft showed two things today that give Kinect the possibility to game the Xbox the centre of the living room: gesture control, sans accessories; and voice control.
Voice control is nothing new. I recall voice control software as far back as the early '90s, accompanying the early add-on sound cards like the Adlib and Sound Blaster that allowed a user to control certain aspects of Windows simply by speaking into a microphone. They were fairly horrible - amusing, but frequently inaccurate. The sheer number of interactions we make with our computers make even a 80 per cent success rate in voice control far too unreliable to rely upon.
But sitting on the couch in front of the HDTV? Addressing the Kinect - "Xbox, pause" - is just as quick as reaching for the remote on a coffee table. And the lower number of interactions necessary for media watching give Kinect a little more room to be inconsistent. (Not much, but a little.)
Even better, if the Kinect's microphone is sensitive enough to pick up a user's commands from across the room, then an Xbox-controlled home music system - complete with Last.fm and someday (hopefully) Pandora - should be a pleasant way to manipulate the home Musak.
I've said from the first glimpse of Kinect that gesture control looks perfect for home theatre interaction - a much more sure fit than for games. The proof will be in the pudding - will I be able to easily watch some streaming Netflix content while drunkenly waving while laying on my side on my couch like a hobo Jedi? - but I will be surprised if Kinect isn't as smooth as tapioca.
The gesture control also has been shown to be able to recognise differing users, presumably in combination with the standard RGB camera. Walk up to a Kinected Xbox and give it a literal wave - your avatar is loaded, along with your profile and preferences.
So why wouldn't that work all the time? With just a little bit of forward thinking, Microsoft could position the Xbox as the one device you need to leave running in your home all the time. (Ignore the ecological impact of that for now. We're dreaming here!) With a Logitech Harmony-style universal remote - possibly even from Logitech, since both companies have worked together extensively in the past - a Kinected Xbox could control everything else in your home theatre, including the television and surround sound system. "Xbox, Netflix" could fire up the HDTV, switch on the surround sound - and load up your own personal Netflix queue. How swish would that be?
With just a little more work, the Xbox could become the voice-and-gesture centerpiece of your whole house. Throw in network-aware extra Kinect cameras that have their own signal processing capability onboard and you could have Kinect control in every room, sending music and media to every connect screen and speaker you've got.
That's a bit of a pipe dream, naturally, but it's only a set of logistical hurdles at this point, not technical ones. Microsoft would have to allow the Xbox to speak to other devices; they've have to develop a robust always-on mode for Xbox that is able to differentiate between different users and intelligently let them control different parts of their home at once. (Home automation has been around for ages, but I've yet to see a company provide a simple, Apple-class interface system that all users can use without an appreciable learning curve.)
Most importantly, Microsoft would have to commit - their biggest failing in the last decade. But Xbox, even if it's not a profit centre for the company, is one of Microsoft's only forward-looking products, perhaps the single brand that showcases the company's ability to leverage skills in networking, user-interface and simplicity. Xbox is the hallmark product of the Microsoft I actually like. Any if they follow through with Kinect, explore the possibilities the new hardware offers, and don't get too wrapped up in making every aspect of the platform proprietary Microsoft could end up with a piece of electronics so whiz-bang that it short-circuits both Apple and Google's attempt to take over the living room.