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With Microsoft's Kinect, the future is now

Microsoft Kinect ***** (Five out of five stars) Platform: Xbox 360 Price: $149.99 (sensor); $299.99 (console with sensor included) Age rating: E (nothing objectionable)

Posted 8:16am on Thursday, Nov. 04, 2010

In late 2006, when Nintendo released the family-oriented Wii, video gaming moved from dank dorm rooms into the living room.

Suddenly, families with only a passing interest in video games could pick up a “Wii-mote,” freed from cables and thickets of multi-colored buttons, and enjoy an evening or an afternoon of fun. Hardcore gamers, the sort who rack up hours playing Red Dead Redemption or obsessing over the latest Call of Duty, scoffed. The playing field may have been leveled, but what’s the use in having such an entry-level system?

But the popularity of the Wii – in the four years since its release, the Wii has sold nearly 76 million units worldwide; globally, it outstrips the Xbox’s and PlayStation 3’s sales figures – forced Nintendo’s competitors, Microsoft and Sony, to devise their own ways to compete with this simpler system. In 2009, the Wii took another leap forward with the Wii MotionPlus, an add-on device that allowed players to see their movements more accurately rendered, lending more depth to an already deeply interactive experience.

This holiday season, both Microsoft and Sony strike back. The PS3’s “Move” controller hit stores in September, and Thursday, Microsoft will unveil its own gamechanger: Kinect. (Kinect is this year's hot holiday buy, and if you want one, you'd better snag it this week, according to a Microsoft exec. They've sold more than 1 million units in the 10 days since its release.)

Whereas the “Move” controller, with its glowing orb and its tether to a console-based webcam, is strongly reminiscent of a Wii controller, Kinect uses only a high-end sensor, comprised of a laser, a depth sensor, a microphone and a small video camera. It relies on hand movements and/or voice recognition; once it’s up and running, the Kinect sensor can even scan your face, so that simply by stepping in front of it, you can sign into your console’s Kinect hub. It’s extremely compact and futuristic without being fussy. Based on a weekend test drive, the Kinect device could prove to gaming’s next great evolution.

Kinect, which can be attached via cable to the new Xbox 360 S’s or the original Xbox, allows players to use nothing but themselves – no controller is needed. The sensor is powered by the console (unless you have an older model Xbox, in which case, a separate, included power adapter is needed) and to begin using it, simply wave or speak. From there, you’re able to use your hands or voice to guide what happens: playing a game, using one of the many social media or entertainment features built into the Kinect software (you can log onto Facebook, watch soccer matches on ESPN or listen to streaming music on last.fm), or video chatting with friends.

It’s a device clearly meant to further the popular idea of a home “hub,” where diversion, information and utility co-exist. In addition to the software features, users can also stream movies, music and more from their Windows Media Center-enabled PCs. Much like Apple TV or the Wii, the Xbox, along with the PS3, is being reconfigured to be a 21st century digital nerve center, a place where everyone can find something to entertain themselves.

Along with the operating system upgrade, the Kinect sensor also provides for some trippy new gaming experiences. With every Kinect sensor is bundled a copy of Kinect Adventures (rated E), which includes challenges like Space Pop, where the player uses his or her whole body to “float” in zero gravity, popping bubbles, and River Rush, where players hurtle down a fast-moving river, dodging obstacles. It goes without saying that this device is not meant for the self-conscious or easily embarrassed; players contort, twist and shimmy into all kinds of positions throughout gameplay. You’ll have more fun if you just give in to looking goofy.

Other Kinect-specific games that will be available upon the unit’s release are Dance Central, a game from the makers of Rock Band ($49.99, rated T) that allows you to pop-‘n-lock your way to glory; Kinect Joy Ride ($49.99, rated E), which puts you in the driver’s seat ... with no physical wheel; Kinect Sports ($49.99, rated E10+), one of the most fun, as players can indulge in soccer, bowling, boxing and track competitions and Kinectimals ($49.99, rated E), a game geared towards children, as it allows players to explore a tropical island and befriend creatures along the way.

For the generations weaned on old-school Nintendo and Sega, it’s more than a little disorienting to play a game with nothing in your hands. Thankfully, the learning curve is forgiving and once the novelty of flailing in space and seeing one’s actions recreated almost identically on screen dissipates, the Kinect-specific titles retain a good fun factor. (Other titles, including a new Harry Potter game and an update of Dance Dance Revolution titled Dance Masters, will be released in the coming weeks.)

One of the few drawbacks, aside from occasionally wonky movement, is that for other household members to have an avatar of their very own, they must create a separate Xbox Live account. Anyone can join the main Xbox Live account as a guest, but to personalize it beyond what’s offered, that other Xbox Live account in necessary. (Of course, Microsoft is helpfully rolling out “family” packages of Xbox Live Gold memberships timed to Kinect’s release, four for $49.99.) Is it worth plunking down $150 (or, if you’ve held out on Xbox, $300)? Yes – if only because, like the Wii before it, Microsoft’s Kinect feels like an equalizer. It’s a product allowing the less-than-tech-savvy and ubergeeks alike to feel as though they’re encountering something completely new.

Although the titles available provide plenty of fun for all, I, for one, will be waiting anxiously to see what yet-to-be-created game fully embraces Kinect’s potential. Can you imagine jumping from rooftop to rooftop as Spiderman? Or maybe, hang-gliding over the Grand Canyon?

It’s the possibilities, as much as the realities, that make Kinect such a fascinating gaming accessory and one worth experiencing.

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