Microsoft's Kinect Misses the Mark

It's rare that a technological innovation creates debate both in the Anthony household and among my colleagues, but Microsoft's Kinect had done just that. The core issue: did Microsoft over-stretch in its effort to transform the gaming market?

For those who haven't seen the ubiquitous commercials, Kinect is a new way to interface with Microsoft's Xbox video game console. Instead of a traditional controller, Kinect uses a range of motion sensing technology to allow motions like arm waves, kicks, and jumps to control the action.

Microsoft hopes the $150 device one-ups Nintendo, which created a new market of gamers with its simple-to-use Wii system and console. Nintendo's strategy substantially changed the video gaming market and created billions of dollars of profits for the company.

My wife saw a commercial for Kinect, and said, "I assume you'll want that for Christmas."
Later that week, a colleague who knows that I've written extensively (and, largely positively) about the Wii said, "I assume you are a big fan of the Kinect."

In both cases, the questioner was surprised by my ambivalence. I told them that I absolutely loved what Microsoft was trying to do, and I have little doubt that motion-based interfaces will open up amazing new applications in the coming years. But I'm worried that Kinect isn't quite ready to pass the Charlie test.

Let me explain.

The Charlie test involves giving a new technology to a child under the age of four, and seeing if they can start using it within a minute. When my son Charlie was two, the gap between him first holding the Wii remote and playing baseball was about three seconds.

Apple's iPad passed the Charlie test as well; my two-year-old daughter Holly very quickly figured out how to use the device.

But over the weekend Charlie (who is now five) and I wandered over to the Kinect demonstration unit at Selfridges department store on Oxford Street in London to try out bowling. The screen told him to move to the left. Then back. Then left again. Then he had to raise his hand. I had to explain to him how to pick up the ball. I could see his frustration growing.

Now, this was an in-store demonstration unit, and I think the odds remain high that Kinect will be under my tree. But I suspect that Kinect will only be a true breakout hit if it turns out that it can in fact pass the Charlie test.

Perhaps Microsoft could have explored a different commercialization strategy. Maybe it could have positioned the first generation Kinect as something for hard core gamers who don't mind dealing with quirky interfaces before introducing a more streamlined version for the mass market. The risk in trying to introduce a revolutionary technology in the mass market is that Microsoft could potentially poison the market, limiting Kinect's long-term potential.

I have little doubt that Microsoft is on to something huge with motion as a transformational way to interact with games, data, and a whole range of other applications. However, I think there might just be enough rough edges around Kinect that it might not live up to the hype.

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