Yes, the new Xbox One is highly covetable for many reasons. But once you get past the games and the TV integration and the rumbling controllers, you finally land on what might be its most useful purpose: the world's most sophisticated workout gadget.
The Xbox is already a decent workout aid; last year we spent some time playing with Nike+ Kinect Training for the Xbox 360, and came away duly impressed. But the Xbox One with the Kinect 2 is going to blow it out of the water. It's improved in just about every way imaginable, and that's going to make it amazing for exercise. Here are just a few of the benefits coming this year.
Wireless Heart Rate Monitoring
The optical sensors on the Kinect 2 are so strong that they can see your pulse. Hell, they can see your pulse in the dark, thanks to the infrared cameras it uses. As long as the Kinect 2 can see your face, it should be able to work as a medical oximeter does, detecting slight variations in the shade of your skin that correspond with blood flow (and yes, it'll work just fine regardless of skin tone).
Think about the potential there. With Xbox One, you'll never need to strap a heart rate monitor to yourself for your Kinect workouts, which most of us don't do anyway. But it's better than mere convenience. By reading your heart rate in real time, the Xbox One will be able to design a fluid interval workout for you.
Interval training is really about getting your heart into a specific "zone" (a range of beats per minute) for a specific amount of time. Currently, the best a computerized program can do is an arbitrary number of reps or a predetermined amount of time based on some information you've provided in the past (height, weight, age, how many reps you did in your last session). This doesn't take into account how you might be feeling that day, if you're sick, or how much you're actually capable of.
With the Kinect 2, a program could conceivably have you start a set, wait until you hit your target heart rate, then make subtle adjustments to keep you maintaining that rate for the optimised amount of time. Once that's done, it would tell you to stop, and make sure your heart spends enough time in an actual resting state before the next interval begins.
The only barriers would be accuracy — we have yet to compare Kinect 2 to an actual heart rate monitor — and developers taking advantage of the capabilities. But if it can deliver on its promises, you would have your own personal trainer right there in your living room.
Wider Field of View
One of the biggest problems we ran into while testing Nike+ Kinect Training was not having enough space. I have a reasonable-by-New-York-standards sized living room (a.k.a. it's small for anywhere else), but if I wanted to use the Kinect, I had to push my entire entertainment centre back a few feet until it was almost in my kitchen, and even then I basically had to have my heels against my couch or it might miss me. That won't be a problem with Kinect 2.
The lenses on the Kinect 2 have a much wider field of view (FOV). 60 degrees wider, in fact, and along with that comes an improved depth sensor. The gentleman who lead our demo at Microsoft yesterday says the new cameras can capture his entire body when he's just three feet away, and he's six-foot-four! For those of us with small living rooms, this is a game changer. I really liked the Nike+ program, but rearranging my furniture every time I wanted to use it just wasn't practical.
And it's not just for the space-constrained. A wider field of view makes it easier for multiple people to work out at the same time; training's always easier with a partner. Kinect 2 would also be able to accomodate a broader range of exercises, such as walking lunges that take you across a room.
More people. More options. More space.
Devil in the Details
Kinect 2 also comes with new and improved cameras that can pick up three times more detail compared to the last version. A wrinkle in your t-shirt? A smile on your face? Yeah, it can see all of that.
So what? This gives the Xbox One a far more accurate picture of your body, which is critical for a program that is supposed to act like a personal trainer. Skip to 4:45 in the video below, and look at the incredible detail in the skeleton. It tracks virtually every major joint in your body and can even see the rotation of your wrist. It can even see if your shoulders are tight or relaxed.
Now skip to 6:25. Not only can the Kinect 2 perceive the skeletal layout of a human body, but it's smart enough to know the ways in which the muscles must work to create different movements and positions. Obviously, this is just a demo application in the video, but it's rather genius, and it could be used by anybody who was making a fitness app.
The key to any successful workout is form. Twenty-five perfect pushups are far better for you than 50 shoddy ones. Using proper form gets you the workout you intend. Even more importantly, maintaining good form is critically important for avoiding injury. As we tire, our form typically starts slipping. The Kinect 2 can see so much nuance in the human body that it will be able to correct our form in real-time, making at-home, unsupervised workouts safer and more effective.
How Soon Is Now?
So that's why you need the new Xbox. Not for playing endless hours of whatever new Halo game will be coming. Of course not. You're a grownup. It's for your health. Your longevity.
The best part is that it's almost here. In a few weeks we'll find out more specifics about Xbox One, probably centered around games and Xbox Live content, some of which could well include fitness. Just a few months after that, almost certainly in time for holiday season, the console and all its workout goodness will be on shelves. And it'll be so much easier enjoying that second slice of Christmas pie knowing that the best electronic personal trainer in the world is waiting for you under the tree.