We are in a transformative time. Old paradigms a breaking down to be replaced with new usage models and interface enhancements. Touchscreens show how the mouse might be effectively retired in the future and last week Microsoft showed, with the launch of Kinect, just how the venerable game controller and TV remote just might become obsolete in the near future as well. The game controller is a true anachronism. Today’s models are the direct evolutionary decendents of the original NES controller from decades past. I’d even argue they might even be the decendents of the Intellivison controller. Sure, we’ve added more buttons, control sticks and triggers but the core functions have remained unchanged (right down to the fact that most controllers favor left handed players) an anachronism that continues to this day.
Nintendo evolved the controller somewhat with the Wii but now Microsoft takes it to a whole new level. No controller. None. Welcome to the world of Kinect. Why is this important? Gaming, for the most part has still been the purview of the gamer, people for whom the game controller is a natural extension of themselves for game play. While the Wii most notably made strides to simplify the human/controller input, at the end of the day, it was just a first step. Taking down the third wall between gamer and game is what will ultimately drive more users into the world of video games and that’s what’s going to drive the next wave of adoption.
For those unfamiliar, Kinect is a small array combining cameras, array microphone and other sensors that connect to any Xbox 360. The results are amazing and point to the way of the future. Want to drive a car? Simply place your hand in the air as if gripping a steering wheel and you’re off to the races. Playing a platform game? Just run in place and jump as needed. Totally natural, totally immersive. While gamers have adapted well to the infusion of buttons and triggers, the larger market of non-gamers often finds the array of input choices to be more confusing than intuitive. While I believe that Kinect will offer experiences for the hardcore gamer, the key to long term success will be how well Kinect will deliver the mainstream market. Judging by what Microsoft showed at E3 I’d say they are on the right path.
While Kinect’s game controls are impressive, I’m even more fascinated by how well Kinect enhances the experiences of other Xbox features. Want to do a video chat with another Xbox user or MSN Messenger PC client. Not a problem. Kinect’s ability to focus and frame the video properly make the experience more akin to a conversation, eyes are focued where they should be and the picture expands and contracts properly as people enter and leave the frame. Command and control have also vastly improved. Swiping, speaking and other natural gestures make media consumption easy and more importantly less complex than even the best remotes.
One can imagine a time when I turn on my TV and it not only knows who I am but what content it should present to me. Take it one step further and analytical content might not only tell you what shows I was watching but when I left the room or stopped paying attention to what was on screen. There’s a battle going on for the living room right now. The TV is among the last consumer screens that is not connected. Long term, whoever gets control of input on the TV will win. The Kinect UI shows how a complicated remote control can be replaced by gesture and voice.
I’m less sanguine about Sony’s efforts. Another set of controllers at fairly high cost doesn’t seem to move the genre forward. More than anything, Sony’s Move feels like a reactive move to the Wii of several years ago. Worse, by attempting to tie Move into games designed for controllers it feels that move is more a gimmick than a new approach to gameplay. The net result feels less than revolutionary and looks like it might be offering the worst of all words not the best. While Move may well be adopted by current PS3 owners looking for a new experience, it’s not likely to drive new consumers to the platform the way that Kinect has the potential to do.
The TV and game experience have evolved in major ways over the last decade. How we interact with them has not. Complex remote controls and game pads have alienated mainstream users. Media and core features of Xbox were often beyond the ability of non gamers in the family to effectively enjoy. Kinect demonstrates that there are ways to both increase functionality and reduce complexity. Kinect isn’t perfect but it breaks new ground and differs from Sony’s more evolutionary approach. There’s still a split personality between the normal Xbox UI and the Kinect UI (although one can go back and forth between them) and despite Microsoft’s efforts to position Xbox as a cable ready platform for MSOs, that hasn’t happened yet. There’s also missing details on what the final price will be – tipped at $150 – something that will affect adoption depending on where Microsoft comes out on this.
Nevertheless, in a world where the battle for the living room has become the battle for that all important input one, Kinect shows a strategy how to achieve victory that’s quite compelling. We’ll have to see how the competition attempts to change the game.