Is Microsoft's Kinect A Gaming Failure?

E3 is well underway in Los Angeles, and Microsoft has already made a major splash with its "SmartGlass" technology, game demos, and its announcement that a Kinect-powered version of Internet Explorer will debut on the Xbox 360. This is a marked change from last year, when Kinect was the unquestioned centerpiece of Microsoft's display and the company's demos focused on how Kinect-powered games used your full body as a controller. This year, the biggest titles being shown, like Splinter Cell: Blacklist, FIFA 13, and Madden 13, have focused their implementations on adding voice control, giving players the ability to call commands or instructions without navigating tedious menus.

That's a significant strategy shift from what we saw last year, and it's almost certainly a response to a run of lackluster titles and poor motion control. Kinect is in the interesting position of having both sold extremely well while failing to move the bar forward in any of the ways Microsoft projected in the run up to it's launch. Scroll through the ratings on Kinect-required titles, and the percentages are abysmal. Kinect may have sold well, but the only place it took the game quality bar is downwards.


This is best exemplified by Kinect Star Wars. Everyone wanted Kinect Star Wars to be good. This is a game that promised to fulfill our childhood fantasies of actually being a Jedi. Inaccurate motion controls and weak writing doomed the title; the current generation of Kinect simply isn't capable of resolving motion with enough speed or precision to fulfill gamers' expectations.

Kinect's biggest problem is rooted in ergonomics. Gamepads with buttons may be crude approximations of real life, but they're simple and intuitive. They're also flexible -- a great many games have conditional scenarios that allow the same button to perform different functions depending on what's going on within the game. Most games also incorporate the "Use" button, which remaps on the fly to let players open doors, flip levers, and interact with NPCs. Pure Kinect games don't have a simple mechanism to incorporate these features, and there's no easy way around them.

Kinect, in its current incarnation, has failed to accomplish its original goals. Microsoft, to its credit, appears to have quietly realized this, and is encouraging developers to adopt Kinect in other ways. The rise of voice control is one option that didn't get much play when the device launched but has become an increasingly discussed feature.

Microsoft's patent filing for Kinect determining age of viewer and appropriate content

The motion-controller's most enduring features may ultimately be its capabilities outside the gaming sphere. Voice control has applications far outside traditional gaming, particularly for disabled users who have previously relied on someone else for something as simple as changing the channel on the television. Microsoft has clearly been working on alternate uses for the technology and the upcoming next-generation Xbox, codenamed Durango, will likely incorporate Kinect 2 functionality. With a more powerful CPU and possibly dedicated onboard hardware, a second-generation version of the peripheral should be able to perform tasks the current flavor can't.

Lag-free voice interaction and controller-augmented motion support are game features users can get excited about, which is why we're ultimately bullish on Kinect's long-term prospects. It may not push the envelope in some of the ways Microsoft first envisioned, but it's agile enough to be genuinely useful in a host of other areas.