In defense of Kinect

Video games have had more than their share of terrible peripherals. The Power Glove was so bad it's become a cultural joke even though most gamers have never used one. New technology doesn't always result in true advancement when that technology is put to poor use, and it seems like console peripherals in particular have to overcome understandable skepticism and sometimes outright hostility from gamers. Often in the past, peripherals that were supposed to be revolutionary ended up detracting from the gameplay experience more than enhancing it.

Enter the Kinect. When it arrived on the scene for the Xbox 360 alongside the Playstation Move it was viewed simply as Microsoft's attempt to get in on that sweet, sweet, Wii money. Then, when the next generation launched with the Xbox One, and it was packed in the box, and it was “required,” the real hate started.  Then, if anything, the hate got worse when Microsoft admitted it wasn't actually required and started shipping consoles without it. “It's unnecessary.” “Why did Microsoft force this on us?”  “What's the point?” It seems like nobody likes the Kinect. Well, I have a confession to make:

I like the Kinect.

I always have. While new technology is can be questionable I can at least appreciate when people try something new. Even if it really doesn't work, we don't move forward if we don't try. What’s more, often we have to be forced to accept new technology before it becomes mainstream. Ifthe Wii hadn't forced people to accept motion control gaming in the first place then how much would the others have even tried? And for all the terrible shovelware that the Wii wrought upon us, there were also great, unique experiences that would not have happened without it.

Shouting At Aliens

mass effect 3 kinect

I bought the first Kinect for the Xbox 360 when Mass Effect 3 came out. That probably sounds crazy but I was a huge fan of the first two games in the series (Mass Effect 2 is still near the top of my all time list) and I wanted to experience ALL aspects of Mass Effect 3. And you know what? It was great.

One of the things I didn't like about the Mass Effect games was that I had to pause the action in order to give my teammates commands. It completely killed the flow in a firefight so I rarely actually did it. Well, in Mass Effect 3 I could give commands to my team with my voice, without having to stop shooting. Did I sound slightly silly shouting “Liara, Singularity!” at my TV. Absolutely, but I didn't care. The voice commands worked every time, as long as there wasn't a lot of other noise, and most of the time even then. The voice commands replaced multiple different button-presses I would have had to make otherwise, and made for a more streamlined experience overall.

So when I watched the Xbox One reveal event along with everybody else, while I WAS wishing I had seen more games, I apparently was happier than most with what I did see: being able to control everything with my voice, including switch between apps and change channels on my TV. I thought that actually sounded pretty cool. And it was. And it is.

A Commanding Voice

For most of my career, whether writing or doing other things, I've worked from home. I spend hours in front of computers, and I hate silence. I prefer to have a little background noise while I'm responding to e-mail or putting together a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint and I usually find music too distracting. I do a lot of work on my laptop on my couch in front of my TV. My Xbox is usually running a TV show on Netflix, likely something I've seen 1,000 times so it doesn't distract me, and then my phone rings. Rather than grab my controller, discover it’s gone to sleep, wake it up, and then pause the show, a simple “Xbox Pause” does the job.  When I hang up the phone, “Xbox Play” to get back to the show. When it’s time for lunch, “Xbox go to Twitch” or maybe “Xbox go to Sunset Overdrive.”

Prior to the Xbox One’s release Harmonix announced a rhythm game based on Disney'sFantasia full of classical music and silly pop tunes. The preceding sentence hits so many of my geek buttons I don't even know where to start. Honestly, Disney Fantasia: Music Evolvedwas a key reason I bought an Xbox One in the first place. I needed to play that game. I’d never seen anything like it.  It was truly a game that could not exist without the Kinect and if every Xbox One owner had a Kinect maybe more would have given it a try and discovered they liked it. However, Xbox started selling a Kinect-less version of the Xbox One prior to the game’s release. While it’s hard to say how much this hurt the game, it certainly did Harmonix no favors. One has to believe that the fact that every Xbox One owner was going to have the device was a major factor in Harmonix putting their own support behind it. You simply can’t sell a game very well if only a fraction of the install base has the ability to play it. For me, the game was everything I hoped for. The motion controls are simple but that allows them to be flawless, or close enough to it that I can't tell.

fantasia-performance-tracegesture

I admit that the Kinect is not perfect.  While using voice commands to navigate the Xbox One works well, gestures to do the same leave quite a bit to be desired. Half the time I can't make the Xbox realize I'm trying to use them, and the other half of the time it thinks I want to use them when I don't. Having said that I believe the Kinect is a net positive when it comes to gaming. Not every game needs to use its features, and there’s no point in shoehorning them into games where they don’t belong, but when the right game comes along the Kinect is a great enhancement to the experience.

I’m not arguing that every Xbox One owner needs to own the Kinect. Every gamer is a unique case and a lot of what gets me excited about gaming probably means very little to others. I’m sure many Kinects are in closets or collecting dust above TVs utterly unused, and that’s fine.  It may not be the device for you, but it’s not a bad device.

Kinect recognizes me when I turn my Xbox on. I just wanted to return the favor.