Are we off Kinect yet? It sold like gangbusters when it first released, and it’s really no surprise why. Like something out of a sci-fi thriller, we could suddenly use our hands and bodies to input data quickly and easily with a relatively cheap peripheral for a device many of us already had. Sifting through a menu with a swipe of your hand just felt cool, and I know I was amazed the first time I watched my avatar try to emulate my crude “suck-it” gesture. It was cool, you know? The requisite party and casual titles released alongside it served to introduce people to the core concept, and in that regard it was a success. People bought it by the millions. As software dried up and people got over the novelty, however, we were left wondering if Kinect was anything more than a fad. Sure, a ton of games these days are labeled “Better with Kinect”, but “Technically Not Worse with Kinect” might be more accurate. Coming up on two years since its release, are a couple good games and a bit of novelty the best Kinect has to offer?
I say no. While it is undoubtedly fun to swing an invisible golf club and have that motion recreated on your television, party and sports games are not the applications of the future. Don’t get me wrong: They have their place. As long as new technologies make their way into gaming, we will use that technology to make crappy casual games. I don’t like it either, but that is just the way it is. But Kinect can be used for so much more.
One area that has been neglected is the sound recognition system. Unlike the motion controls, Kinect can pick out your individual voice no matter where you are in the room, and it can do so with success even in a social setting. Truly, the audio capabilities might be more impressive than any other aspect of Kinect, and it has been grossly underutilized. Some games get it; Mass Effect 3 used the sound recognition to perfection, allowing you to issue commands and participate in conversations orally. While playing the game on Insane, I turned off the automatic power usage for my squad to more fully control my team. Previously, that meant a lot of stopping the action while I issued Overloads all over the place. With Kinect though, I could issue commands on the fly. I’ll admit, a couple times I got tired of yelling “Liara, Stasis” and used the button, but I suppose that’s to be expected. I used it approximately 90,000 times throughout my playthrough, and I was more than happy to have a shortcut 89,998 of those times. Those are pretty good odds.
I’m reminded of Tom Clancy’s Endwar. The game itself was subpar, but the voice commands within it were pretty cool, and made perfect sense in its use with a strategy game. Kinect does the same thing, only with much better tech behind it. For those who don’t have the room to play Kinect tennis, the sound detection gives them a reason to keep the small unit by their television. Finding easy uses for the peripheral is what will eventually keep it from going the way of most people’s Rock Band instruments: the closet.
Microsoft seems to know what they’re doing. The Kinect Fun Labs app, which features a revolving circus of apps, is a terrific idea. They are sometimes strange, usually fun and always free. They may not be deep AAA experiences, but Microsoft’s willingness to showcase the tech in ways gamers can appreciate is an undeniable positive. Smart practical applications, like rewinding movies, are just the icing on the cake to what the Kinect is capable of. When you factor in some of the incredible mod work that has been done with the device so far, you begin to see that Kinect has much more to offer than an amusing way to flail your arms.
Will developers get it? Only time will tell, and Microsoft’s Kinect strategy for the next Xbox will go a long way towards determining how successful the peripheral will be in the long run. However, I believe the potential is there, and some really incredible things are on the way. If not, well, good thing my controller works fine.