Kinect isn't racist -- it just doesn't work so well

Dark- and light-skinned gamers alike might have problems being recognized.

Amidst yesterday's divided reactions to Microsoft's Kinect--some heralding it a revolution, others calling it promising but seriously flawed--you might have noticed a few stories questioning whether Kinect is racist.

[PCWorld's full Kinect review]

The site generating yesterday's Google churn was GameSpot, who claimed that in testing, "two dark-skinned GameSpot employees had problems getting the system's facial recognition features to work."

"While testing out the Kinect, two dark-skinned GameSpot employees experienced problems with the system's facial recognition abilities," wrote the site. "The system recognized one employee inconsistently, while it was never able to properly identify the other despite repeated calibration attempts."

To be clear, the problem we're talking about involves the system's ability to "recognize" you as you, not someone else. Step in front of Kinect's camera and it has the ability to log you in (as opposed to someone else) just by "seeing" you.

Consumer Reports claims to have debunked GameSpot's allegations. The company put Kinect through its paces and found that the issue in fact has to do with "low-level lighting," not a player's skin color. Consumer Reports discredited a similar rumor about "racist HP laptops" late last year.

"Essentially, the Kinect recognized both players at light levels typically used in living rooms at night and failed to recognize both players when the lights were turned down lower," wrote Consumer Reports. "So far, we did not experience any instance where one player was recognized and the other wasn't under the same lighting conditions."

To GameSpot's credit, the word "racist" doesn't appear in their story. Racism requires the capacity for judgment--conscious evaluation and selection by a human being. Implying that a piece of technology would discriminate against someone (or in this case, be explicitly programmed to) sounds as preposterous as it almost certainly is. You might as well call the sun 'racist', since it burns people with light skin faster than others with darker (scientific studies indicate people with lighter skin have a lower natural SPF factor).

The real problem with Kinect is that it's inconsistent. After calibrating my Kinect and using it in both daylight and evening lamplight situations, it failed to recognize and auto-sign me in roughly a third of the time. The fix? There isn't one, as far as I know. Recalibrating didn't help much. You're left trying until it finally recognizes you (which, to be fair, it eventually does).

Or just use your hand to log in manually, which--dark or light skinned, high-light situations or low-light ones--works every time.

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This story, "Kinect isn't racist -- it just doesn't work so well" was originally published by PCWorld.

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