By Jared Newman | Monday, June 14, 2010 at 8:39 am
As Microsoft representatives handed out smooth white tunics — they called them panchos — to everyone who entered the “Project Natal Experience” event last night, I realized this would be an unconventional press conference. Yes, Microsoft revealed some details and a final name for its 3D motion-sensing Xbox 360 camera, now called Kinect, but instead of using casually-dressed executives and a teleprompter, the company brought in Cirque Du Soleil for an elaborate show of audio and visuals.
The idea is that Kinect is a natural evolution of gaming. By removing the controller completely and sensing the movement of arms, legs and torsos, Kinect liberates the body — and gaming — from its primitive state. Hence the acrobatic dancers, animatronic elephant and jungle setting that filled the stage of USC’s Galen Center. But when it was time to show the actual Xbox 360 games, there was clearly a disconnect between the substance of Kinect and Cirque’s dog and pony show.
My impressions of Kinect for the Xbox 360 toggled boredom and delight, and looking around the audience, it seemed they had a similar impression. A Star Wars game was clearly the crowd pleaser. As a man on stage clasped his hands and waved them around like a sword, an avatar sliced sliced bad guys with a lightsaber. The man would periodically throw both hands down, causing the avatar to dash forward, and I’m pretty sure I saw a kick and a Force throw amidst the melee fighting. Cheers erupted after the short demo.
The same could not be said for a package of sports games that included hurdles, javelin, volleyball, bowling and soccer. It was hard to shake the image of Wii Fit and Wii Sports as the demonstrators ran in place, pretended to throw objects and otherwise flailed about on stage. Sure, there were no controllers involved, but the core experience didn’t look much different from Wii where I was sitting, and that’s probably why all the people around me glazed over as the demo dragged on. Microsoft needs to steer away from mini-game territory, and fast.
At times it did seem like Kinect can do something genuinely different. My favorite demo of the night was a pet trainer in which a young girl interacted with a baby Tiger. The player could pet the animal, play fetch with a ball and perform actions like jumping and playing dead, which the tiger would mimic. I suppose it’s not fundamentally different from Nintendogs, but the camera allows for freedom of motion that really changes the way we interact with on-screen avatars.
In addition to gaming, Microsoft showed off video chat and controller-free navigation of the Xbox 360 dashboard.
Maybe it’s not fair for me to make snap judgments of Kinect before actually trying it out, but even from afar it’s easy to know whether the things you see are truly awesome or just cool. The Cirque du Soliel act fell into the former category, but I’m still not convinced that Microsoft has tapped Kinect’s full potential.