[UPDATE: We further tested the Microsoft Kinect to investigate whether the video game accessory has issues with recognizing players who have dark skin tones. See our latest blog and new video debunking the Kinect's supposed skin color bias. —Ed.]
With the release today of the Kinect for Xbox 360, Microsoft takes gamers a hop, skip, and a jump—plus a punch or two—closer to controller-free gaming.
The Kinect is a motion-tracking camera that hooks up with your Xbox, letting you interact with games using only your body. We tried it out here in our lab, and here's what we found.
Setup was easy. We just plugged everything in and placed the Kinect sensor under our TV. If you already own an Xbox and are adding the device, you'll have to sit through a few updates first. The Kinect will evaluate the noise levels in your room to make sure voice commands work without interference.
Next up is a tutorial that shows you some basic commands. Most make simple use of your hands: For example, to pause a game, you hold your left hand out at your side. Kinect uses facial recognition to log you into the system.
Controller-free games are fun! We took several games for a test run, and most took advantage of body movements. For example, a river-rafting game in Kinect Adventures takes you on a race down a river where you steer through obstacles by sidestepping and fly over ramps to grab tokens by jumping.
Sometimes, however, hands-free can be a little strange. In the Joy Ride race-car game, for example, it was disorienting, at least initially, to steer without a steering wheel in our hands.
Games currently available range from personal fitness, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved; to sports, Kinect Sports; to arcade, Kinect Joy Ride; and more.
Compared to Wii games, we found graphics for Kinect games are much better. But onscreen movement at times was sluggish and we had to compensate with our body movements.
But the current crop of games won't satisfy hard-core gamers. If you're looking for a hyper-realistic, virtual-reality, total-surround game of Halo, Kinect is not the platform for you. At least, not yet.
Social networking, of course, plays a role. Kinect takes photos and videos of you throughout game play, which you can then instantly share on Facebook if you have an Xbox Gold account ($60—the price just jumped from $50—or $100 for a family pack for four). And even if you don't plan on sharing, the photos and videos can be embarrassing enough to give your fellow players a good laugh. [Correction: This is what Microsoft initially told us, but after further testing, we discovered it isn’t exactly accurate. Your videos and pictures are actually posted to kinectshare.com. You can then choose to download them or share them via Facebook from your computer. Also, this doesn’t require a Gold account.—Ed.]
An Xbox Gold account will also give you access to videoKINECT, a video chat feature.
You can use voice commands for some navigation options. Say "Xbox" out loud, and a list of voice commands pops up that's based on the screen you're on at the time. We tried it, and it easily recognized our commands in a quiet room. But when there was too much background noise in the room, or the TV's volume was too high, the Kinect had difficulty recognizing voices.
You can use voice control (or motion control) to play videos or music from ESPN, Zune, or Last.FM. So far, these features don't work with Netflix or DVD playback.
You need lots of room to play. Leave at least 6 feet around the Kinect if you're playing alone, or 8 feet with a second player. Prepare to move some furniture.
Microsoft is bundling Kinect with a 4GB Xbox 360 for $300 or a 250GB Xbox 360 for $400. If you already own an Xbox and want to add a Kinect device, you can buy a standalone version of the Kinect for $150, but you'll need to plug it into both the Xbox and an electrical outlet. Games start at $50; so far, there are 17 games available.
If you're looking for a gaming console as a holiday gift, consider the bundled Xbox/Kinect package. If you've already got an Xbox 360 and want to play motion-based games without a controller, we recommend adding the Kinect to your Xbox.
Hard-core gamers, on the other hand, might want to wait for more complex games before buying into the Kinect. It's likely Microsoft has plans for expanding Kinect capabilities into more advanced games and even other technologies.
—Matt Ferreti and Donna Tapellini
Interested in a head-to-head with the big three game consoles? See our story, "Video-game consoles: Comparing the big three" on Consumer Reports Online.