Xbox Gets New Lease on Life With Cool Kinect: Rich Jaroslovsky

No, I won’t post the pictures of myself that Microsoft Corp.’s new Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360 snapped while I was using it. A man’s gotta retain some shred of dignity.

So you won’t see me in my floppy college sweatshirt grinning like an idiot as I land a few uppercuts in the “Kinect Sports” boxing game. Or leaping to maneuver my raft in the “River Rush” game in “Kinect Adventures.” And regarding my moves in “Dance Central,” well, the less said the better.

Without the photographic evidence, you’ll just have to take my word for it that the $149.99 Kinect -- which turns your entire body into a video-game controller -- is a wonderful antidote to couch potato-itis. While it may not satisfy hard- core gamers, for normal people the device is a gas.

It’s also something of a technological marvel. Motion-based gaming was pioneered by Nintendo Co. with its 2006 Wii. More recently, Sony Corp. introduced the Move system for its PlayStation 3 console. Both of those require you to hold or move a controller. The Kinect doesn’t -- you’re interacting directly with the game, which makes for a quite different, and much more immersive, experience.

Microsoft has been working on the Kinect and talking about it for so long, giving demonstrations at tech conferences, that its release last week felt a bit anticlimactic. At least until I had a chance to play with it, when it became clear that this gadget provides the now 5-year-old Xbox 360 with an entirely new dimension.

Black Bar

The Kinect is a motorized black bar housing a camera, infrared projector, depth sensor and microphones, about 11 inches wide (28 centimeters) and 3 inches deep, that sits on a small stand. You can place it either above or below your television, anywhere from 2 feet to 6 feet off the ground. Microsoft recommends putting it on a shelf or other stable surface, though I balanced mine on the top edge of my TV.

Physical set-up is a snap: If you’ve got the latest version of the Xbox, a single cable connects the two products. Owners of older Xboxes must use the included brick-like power adapter.

Configuring the device is more involved. The Xbox prompts you in a sort of Simon Says routine -- Stand here! No, there! Raise your hand! Wave! -- as it places you properly and learns to identify you. Once it does, Kinect remembers who you are whenever you start to play, even to the point of recognizing you if you jump into a game to replace another player.

‘Eye of the Tiger’

You’ll need a sufficiently big area to play in, as every game tiresomely reminds you. Microsoft recommends that a single player stand 6 feet away from the sensor, 8 feet if two are playing. If you get too close in the heat of battle, as I did in a few boxing matches -- I’ve clearly got the “Eye of the Tiger” -- you’re prompted to move back until you’re again within proper range.

Many game options and commands are gesture-based: You choose which game you want, how many players and the like by hovering your hand in midair so that an icon on the screen makes the appropriate selection. Move your hand too soon, and you have to start over again, which gets old fast. Raising an arm to the side will pause the game; so will simply walking out of the Kinect’s line of sight.

Noticeable Time Lag

While the game play is smooth, there’s sometimes a noticeable lag between your action -- kicking at an on-screen soccer ball, timing a leap -- and the corresponding move of your on-screen avatar. The delay isn’t enough to be annoying, and after a while you’ll find yourself automatically compensating for it -- just ask my table-tennis opponent once I got my timing down on my sidearm smashes. But it does raise the question of how suitable the Kinect will prove for serious, sophisticated gamers, for whom a few milliseconds can be a big deal.

For now, at least, that isn’t an issue: The first crop of Kinect games, which cost about $50 each, aren’t aimed at them anyway. Instead, many of them are cartoony or otherwise family friendly. About a dozen and a half titles were available at launch, and many more are on the way.

Titles so far include Microsoft’s “Kinect Adventures,” which is included with the device, and “Kinectimals,” where you adopt, train and play with cuddly jungle creatures; “Dance Central,” from Viacom Inc.’s MTV Games; and Ubisoft Entertainment’s “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved,” which provides an array of routines from cardio workouts to tai chi.

The Kinect adds several other bells and whistles, including limited voice recognition, video chatting and the ability to share those pictures of you playing -- sort of a stop-action video -- with your friends via the Xbox Live online service. New Kinect Guide and Kinect Hub screens act as portals to some of these features -- but, unfortunately, also add to an Xbox navigational jumble that’s enough to make you nostalgic for Windows 3.0.

But none of those cavils really matter. What does is that Kinect takes gaming to a totally new place -- and provides a ton of fun along the way.

Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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