Microsoft Confirms Disconncecting Kinect Gives Developers 10% More GPU Horsepower

Today, Microsoft confirmed a development rumor that's been swirling around its next-generation console ever since it announced Kinect would become an optional add-on rather than a mandatory boat anchor.  Lifting that requirement will give game developers 10% additional graphics power to play with and help close the gap between the Xbox One and PS4. The story kicked off when Xbox head Phil Spencer tweeted the following:

In a statement to Eurogamer, a Microsoft representative then confirmed that the performance improvement coming in the next version of the Xbox SDK was the result of making Kinect an optional accessory. "Yes, the additional resources allow access to up to 10 per cent additional GPU performance. We're committed to giving developers new tools and flexibility to make their Xbox One games even better by giving them the option to use the GPU reserve in whatever way is best for them and their games."

Microsoft Gives Up On Original Xbox one Vision

I realize that's a strong subhead but consider the facts. MIcrosoft's original Xbox One unveil focused on the Xbox One as the centerpiece of the modern digital home. The company led the launch with a discussion of seamless voice commands and Skype for Xbox One. The Xbox One would have a unique digital distribution model for its content that allowed you to share games with family members and implement a unique, and powerful game control system via Kinect. Now, all three of those features are gone. Only one of them, the shared family plans (which came at the cost of analog media resale and required a ridiculous validation scheme) is genuinely mourned. Microsoft, of course, could still implement this last feature but chose not to and blamed its cancellation on end users instead. C'est la vie.

Let me be clear, I'm not bashing Microsoft for listening to its customers or changing its product line to respond to its user base. If anything, I think the company deserves a medal for making the most dramatic set of changes to a console that any company has ever made. Notwithstanding this, I think it's critical that Microsoft examine how it managed to blow two critical product introductions in a row (Xbox One was merely the follow-up to Windows 8's disastrous launch). In both cases, the company confidently predicted it had a finger on the pulse of its community, backed up by spreadsheets, statistics, and exhaustive user studies. In both cases, it fell short.

No matter how Microsoft may try to spin it, cancelling Kinect isn't just a matter of giving game developers freedom, it's a tacit admission that game developers have no projects in play that are expected to meaningfully tap Kinect to deliver a great game experience. This is a catastrophic failure of imagination -- and Microsoft should've known that before it ever decided to sink millions of dollars into developing a follow-up to a peripheral precious few people used more than a handful of times.

If Redmond thought it had a killer game launch coming that would show people why Kinect ought to be bundled with the Xbox One and transform it from an unwanted accessory to a must-have item, I guarantee they'd hold this change until they had a chance to gauge reactions. It's clear they don't.

What 10% GPU Performance Buys You

There are some big questions coming along with the additional GPU bandwidth. Can older games be patched to automatically take advantage of it? (Presumably yes).  How much additional performance can developers squeeze out of the system? This gets into questions of whether the additional bandwidth will impact frame rates or improve frame latency. If you've followed our discussion of GPU performance metrics, you know the two aren't identical -- higher frame rates are self-explanatory, but better frame latency will give you smoother content.

Here's how the two interweave:  A game running at 60 fps delivers one frame every 16.6ms. If the game's frame delivery is erratic and it delivers one frame at 8.3ms and then the next frame 24.9ms later, the frames per second rate will still average out to 60. The human eye, however, will pick up on the frame rate differential as a stutter. Without knowing how the Xbox Kinect interfaces with the rest of the system, it's impossible to know how it'll impact games.

Could it make 1080p60 gameplay a reality? I frankly doubt it. The Xbox One has been shown to have too much trouble at lower resolutions to make a clean jump from the typical 720p60 or 900p300. But it's entirely possible that current and future games will see noticeable improvements thanks to Microsoft's decision to get rid of Kinect.