It sounds more futuristic than holding a PlayStation Move or Nintendo Wiimote in hand and waving it around at the TV. It also costs more than just a controller—$149 alone for the Kinect; that's only $50 shy of a 4GB Xbox 360. Bundle the Kinect with that 4GB 360 or the 250GB hard drive equipped console and Microsoft throws in a $50 discount, making them $299 and $399 respectively.
Expecting a lengthy process to get all dialed-in and working properly, Kinect's setup surprised me by being painless and only taking a couple of minutes. In fact, the camera system actually requires no special calibration. Position the Kinect sensor bar above or below the screen—it doesn't have to be perfectly centered but the closer to center the better the spatial relationships work—and the motors in its base do the rest, scanning the room to determine its dimensions.
Because the Kinect includes this motorized tracking functionality, it needs to be placed fairly securely. Sticky tape and other sorts of less sturdy options that work for the Wii's sensor bar won't hold up and the Kinect will go flopping around, potentially on your TV screen. If your current situation doesn't work, Microsoft has licensed three mounting options to be sold separately: a wall mount, an "A" brace that connects to wall mounting pegs on the back of a flat screen TV and holds the Kinect above it, and a speaker stand-like floor pedestal.
Even with a suitably sturdy base some rearrangement at the very least may be necessary for those with home theaters. The Kinect system also employs microphones and proximity to a center channel speaker can be an issue. Placement behind and above the speaker worked but anywhere right in front of the center channel was a no-go.
Getting the microphones configured is actually the most time consuming part of the setup. An automated routine runs that measures background noise and plays sounds through the speaker system to establish a baseline. Once it completes, the Kinect is more or less good to go. There's also a calibration card for fine tuning the camera sensors to your play space, but I found the system's self-tuning worked perfectly.
The real stumbling block to playing Kinect at home is the amount of space it requires. The instructions recommend a distance of six feet from the sensor for playing solo and eight feet for two-player gaming. But it's really more than that. The play area needs to be a few feet wide at that distance, and extend back further, unobstructed both to allow room to move and not interfere with the camera's ability to read players.
The space required to get a good play area for Kinect means that even in a reasonably sized room there's going to be some furniture rearranging. In my small apartment this translated to the rather extreme measure of turning the layout of everything in the room 90 degrees to get enough distance from the screen. But even at a friend's house we had to move chairs, sofa, and table and even then in a decent size den only just had enough space to play.
Xbox marketing director Albert Penello explained to me that part of the requirement stems not from the hardware, but concerns about having an unobstructed space in which to play. The sensing capabilities in fact can handle a much tighter range, and in fiddling around with it I found it would work in tighter confines, but not as well as it does in the right conditions.
Lighting also plays an important part in creating a play space that works well with Kinect. Much like shooting video, the cameras respond best to well-lit subjects. Ambient light levels are less important here than ensuring there is good light to the front side of players. The sensors can also be put off some by shadow, so having multiple light sources is ideal.
In most cases it should be less troublesome to get setup than it sounds and Kinect rewards that effort by living up to its promise of just standing in front of the sensor and playing games. Facial recognition automates identification of regular users of the system. Complete the setup "game" (it has you pose in a number of places in front of the camera to build a full image) and then anytime the camera "sees" you, it almost instantly pops your character into the current game. Almost too fast sometimes, just walking through the play area can be enough for Kinect to spot you and try to log you in; it's that sharp.
With or without setting up the facial recognition, Kinect shines when playing with a group. Taking turns playing a game like bowling becomes nothing more than standing up and walking into the play space. It couldn't be easier. The auto-join for having a second player jump-in works equally well. It impressed me that through a couple of nights of playing with all sorts of people in different groups, never once did managing players become an issue. We just played.
Most importantly, we could play that easily because the Kinect sensor works as advertised. Its sensitivity more than satisfies the demands of any of the current games, including Dance Central. One of the surprises of spending time playing it is how exacting the dance moves get. Initially I thought the sensor wasn't reading my movements correctly. Slowing it down I figured out that quite the opposite; I wasn't making the moves completely. It read how far I bent my arms and legs, how fast, and all their positions without any trouble.
Using Kinect as a fancy way to control the Xbox is more of a mixed bag. The standard menus do not support Kinect. There's a new set of Kinect menus for use with motion and voice control. The system uses a very basic vocabulary for communicating with it. Holding both hands down and slightly out from your sides causes them to be recognized by the sensor, and glow in the small on-screen window that shows what the sensor sees. Waving at the screen "wakes up" Kinect mode, and holding just your left hand down and out to your side acts as a universal pause.
To select items in Kinect you hover your hand over an icon while a circular ring fills up. Because the sensing system works well it can fill pretty quickly without worries of mistakenly selecting the wrong thing. There's also voice control, activated by speaking "Xbox" and then the desired command. These will be listed on screen but once you know them the system can keep up with what you say without need for a pause. For what it covers it works fine but the limited application and command list left if feeling like a gimmick--and I felt a little silly talking to the box to do something I could select with a controller in less than a second.
That was the one instance where the thought, 'I could just do this with a controller,' really came to mind. I expected games like those in Kinect Sports to basically mimic similar games on Wii and Move, but not having anything in my hand made a real difference. It turned thinking about playing a bowling game to simply bowling, and waving my hands around to make controller motions into learning choreographed dance routines.
Kinect lands a solid hit with the tech but its real-world practicality remains in question to me. All of the current games are intended to be use in a full-size recommended play space. That will require special setup for many. It also means that when I'm not "Kinecting" I most likely won't have the sensor setup, rendering all the gee-whiz navigation functionality moot. When Kinect becomes the device that lets me sit on the couch and interact with my 360 and some games it will earn a permanent place on my gaming center, until then it's reserved for group game night.