November 04, 2010, 11:19 AM — "You are the controller." It sounds so simple, so friendly, so patently cool. Take an Xbox 360, plug in the new $150 Kinect motion-sensing camera, devote a few minutes to waving your arms around like a traffic controller, and you're gaming without a gamepad. It's a little disorienting at first, like stepping onto a balance beam for the first time, and Kinect's imprecise, casual approach won't be for everyone, least of all Wii and PlayStation Move fans used to tactile wands and accurate controls. But as a second shot at bringing full body interactivity to the masses (the first was Sony's EyeToy, unless we're counting The Clapper) Kinect gets more right than wrong.
Salute, Duck, Jump
Even if you've fiddled with Nintendo's Wii or Sony's PlayStation Move, Kinect tends to throw you. Instead of wielding gamepads and remotes or wands and gun props you use your entire body as a kind of semaphore, a limb-and-torso command center scanned and translated courtesy Kinect's high-resolution cameras. Extend your arms one way to conjure the pause menu. Hold your hand out as if giving a Roman salute, then move it around to manipulate an onscreen pointer. Actually duck to duck, turn around to turn around, and jump to jump. Speak a couple words to bring up a navigational hub and access games and Kinect-enhanced applications. Act naturally, in other words, and for the most part, Kinect can tell what you're up to.
The trouble is, sometimes it can't. Kinect tends to process slow or exaggerated gestures without a problem, but badly garbles fast or subtle ones. Whether the problem's caused by lag, an algorithmic limitation, or insufficient processing power, it translates as moments where Kinect seems to misread or outright ignore you in ways Nintendo and Sony's systems don't. Sometimes you'll pull off a move in a game when it's clear you goofed, or fail when you should have succeeded, and the sensor often overplays a small gesture or underplays an exaggerated one. Perhaps because of these problems, Kinect's games tend to be forgiving by design, which has its demographic flip side: Gaming with Kinect is pretty much "casual" or bust.
Out of the Box
Setting up Kinect couldn't be simpler. The cameras reside in a tube of glossy black plastic about the size of a paper towel tube, attached to a motorized stand that you position facing you two to six feet off the floor above or below your TV screen. Kinect draws power directly from newer slimline Xbox 360s by plugging into a special orange-colored USB port. If you have an older model, you'll plug the sensor into one of the Xbox 360's standard USB ports and power it using a wall adapter included in the box.