When Microsoft first launched Project Natal — later known as Kinect — it declared that the device would usher in a bold new world of gaming where our bodies would be controllers. Today, the last vestiges of that dream have finally died.
According to Fastcodesign, Microsoft has finally ceased manufacturing the camera after selling more than 35 million of them over the past seven years. Retailers may still have some in stock, but the company won’t be building any more. It’s a little odd to think about, but Kinect may well be the best-selling gaming peripheral that had virtually no long-term impact on gaming. Kinect had an impact in non-gaming research and versions of its sensor are integrated into HoloLens, but the hardware never really caught on. Microsoft’s attempts to patent some decidedly Big Brother functionality right as the Snowden leaks hit was cataclysmically bad branding.
An early demo of Kinect used for AR.
The larger problem with Kinect was that developers never really figured out how to make the device work effectively in games. Games built entirely around Kinect had significant limitations and typically ran on rails (there was no practical way to handle locomotion) or teleported you from place to place. The camera could be used for some fitness apps or dance games, but Microsoft never pushed the kind of hybrid functionality that might have made the peripheral more popular. Some games integrated limited voice commands, but hybrid titles tended to focus on the controller-first experience.
What Kinect did demonstrate was that controllers (or a mouse and keyboard) are far better for gaming than a control-less system. Don’t get me wrong — I’ll take a mouse and keyboard over any controller, any day — but we’ve also come a very long way since the NES offered just two buttons. A modern controller has 8-9, with multiple analog sticks and can offer a wide range of context-specific or preprogrammed actions, particularly if analog or D-pad directions are incorporated into commands. It turns out that it’s actually easier to press “A” to open a door than it is to constantly reach out and mime the process of opening one. And the Kinect 2 drove the price of the Xbox One up $ 100, which no one appreciated. If the console had been the better game performer, that might’ve been one thing, but Xbox One customers were paying $ 100 extra for a console that didn’t even deliver higher performance.
Fastcodesign has a different take on Kinect’s overall impact. The author of that piece talks about how Kinect left him feeling as if the computer understood him. I can understand that, because I remember being wowed the first time I used a smartphone with a modern touchscreen. The problem is, it’s exceedingly difficult to map game functionality into real-world coordinate space without giving something up in the process. Even if you had a warehouse to maneuver in, you can’t run forward or side-to-side forever to maneuver in a first-person shooter. That’s a problem that even VR has yet to solve, and inasmuch as Kinect was a stepping stone towards the idea of more immersive gaming, I can agree that it took a big step forward. But as a product that people could actually use for gaming, Microsoft never managed to align great content with its own device.
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