A big new update for the Microsoft Kinect reminds us why we were so excited about the thing in the first place
The last time I wrote about the Kinect in any kind of big-picture way, I was complaining about how this gadget, one of the most amazing, futuristic devices we've ever seen, sits in my living room, covered in dust. It's capable of so much, and hardly did anything, I said.
Today, a new update to the Xbox 360 includes a ton of Kinect improvements--and we're that much closer to having the future in our living room.
THE STORY SO FAR
When I spoke to Microsoft, they were eager to point out that the launch has been incremental on purpose. It's such a new idea, the company says, that it was necessary to roll out updates over time to acclimate users to the concept. It's a nice story, not without precedent (remember the first iPhone and its lack of native apps, 3G or multitasking?), but it doesn't stop me from wanting to use the thing to its full potential a year after launch.
The reason we've been obsessively covering the Kinect isn't because we want fun new games: it's because the Kinect has the potential to completely change our living rooms, computers, cars, and who knows what else. So over the last year, Microsoft has been releasing games as that first step. The sequel to the very best Kinect game to date, Dance Central, is out. There are family games, like the Tim Schafer-helmed Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster. There are ported games like Fruit Ninja and the rare innovative new title like the odd and awesome wild-west-with-zombie-marionette-puppets game Gunstringer. I have not, to be frank, been wowed by either the volume or quantity of the Kinect's first year in gaming. Those games I just named are about the only games I paid attention to all year on the Kinect--most of the others are licensed tie-ins or endless rip-offs of Dance Central, and you'll forgive me if I'm not blown away by the latest fitness game featuring that mean skinny lady who yells at fat people on the TV.
But! I have been using Kinect version 2.0 for the past few days. It's a beta version, and some features, including some very important features, are not yet available. That being said, I am officially enthused again about the Kinect.
The newest update, which will be pushed on December 6th, is a free upgrade to Xbox 360s that packs the new Kinect enhancements and more. Without getting into too many non-Kinect specifics, it's a drastic user interface overhaul, the latest in a very welcome push from Microsoft to make all of the company's platforms use the "Metro" UI, which is best seen now in the awesome Windows Phone mobile OS. That means bold, primary-color squares, lots of big text, and a horizontal orientation of menus. Basically, the Xbox looks much better, and is actually easier to use--the Xbox can do a ton of stuff, much more than just gaming, and it needed a better way to organize all of it. This is a good one.
Now, the Kinect. What's new is that an awful lot of my complaints have been addressed, which I will choose to believe was due entirely to my activist journalistic whining. Kinect has been freed from gaming: you can now use your voice to control almost anything on the Xbox. You can launch apps, browse within them, and, most importantly, search throughout the Xbox. You can jump to the various categories (apps, video, music, games) just by saying them. Within those categories there are tiles, kind of like big thumbnail icons. When you're using the Kinect, a black bar will appear under each thumbnail with the name the Kinect will understand, which might be the movie, game, or TV show title, or stuff like "last night on TV" or "app marketplace." You can then simply say that name to select it.
There's also a new "Quickplay" menu right on the home screen, which is a great idea. It's a mix of your frequently and most recently used apps and files. That's been a fixture on the other devices that use this Metro UI, like the Zune HD and Windows Phone, and it's one of my favorites--I'm all about minimizing the amount of time it takes to do something.
Search: Probably the best feature is the integrated universal search. First, a preface: search is not fully operational right now, not on my pre-release beta version and probably not immediately at launch. There are things that you will be able to do shortly that can't be done right now, and some of those are the most useful and coolest features, so I kind of wish Microsoft had just waited until it was all ready. But! Search is now awesome, and will be more awesome. You call up Kinect by saying "Xbox!" and then you can say the word "Bing," the name of Microsoft's search engine, followed by your search term.
The things it can/will be able to do are pretty incredible. Makers of other apps, like Netflix and Hulu Plus, will integrate their catalogs into Bing, so if you say "bing the office," you'll get not only results to buy episodes of The Office on Zune, but also streaming options at the various services you may already pay for, like Netflix. I've always been most excited about voice as a replacement for text entry, since entering text on a TV with a directional pad is a giant pain in the ass and also getting more common/necessary as our TVs get more connected, and this is such a cool and simple way to do it. But it gets better: my favorite thing about Bing search is that it also addresses metadata, which is stuff like actor and director names or genre or year of creation. Say "bing Michel Gondry" and you'll get the director's movie work on Netflix and Zune, plus his music video work on the redesigned YouTube app. That is ridiculously cool.
I've never been really sold on gestures as navigation; the hover-over-options thing always seems fun for about a second, and then you realize it's kind of inexact and far less efficient than just using a controller. I still think it's not as efficient, but Microsoft overhauled the way you move between menu items in a way that it's at least fun and natural. Instead of hovering over, say, an arrow to select it and move to another menu, you swipe your arm across your body, kind of like you're grabbing a shower curtain and moving it aside. It feels kind of great!
Live TV: Microsoft is also bringing a few live TV services to the Xbox, with Kinect integration. Comcast Xfinity and Verizon subscribers will be able to watch and control live TV. I haven't been able to test it out myself, because I am a subscriber to neither service and support isn't baked into my beta version of the new Xbox software anyway (Microsoft says it'll come out sometime later this month), but Microsoft did a little demo for me and it seems pretty impressive. It streams over Wi-Fi or ethernet, and you get access to certain, though not all, live channels. Video quality looked as good as any other streaming service, which is to say quite good if you have a reasonably quick internet connection. Of course, you still have to have a set-top box (which as we know are crazy energy hogs), but it's not hard to foresee a future (and Microsoft would probably really love this particular future) in which all your video, including live TV, runs through your Xbox.
WHAT IT'S NOT
Kinect is not Siri. It doesn't understand natural language, really; it only responds to pre-entered commands. That might be in the future; when I asked about it, Microsoft gave me one of those answers like "that's something we've definitely looked at" that means "we're not ruling it out, but we're also not going to confirm or tell you anything about that, and if it does come out, it probably won't be anytime soon." I'd really love to turn on my Xbox and say "Xbox! Play season four, episode seven of Parks and Recreation." That's not possible at the moment, even though it's well within the technical ability of the Kinect.
That's my bigger problem with the Kinect as it is right now--it's not complete enough. There are still lots of times, in regular use, when a controller is necessary. And there are times when that's fine, like when you're messing with network or video settings, but there are also times when it seems unnecessary. Why do the Hulu Plus and Netflix apps only have twelve or fifteen videos you can launch with the Kinect? While I'm on the topic of "things the Xbox can't do," where are the other apps? The app marketplace has like eight apps in total, and it's lacking stuff like Spotify and Rdio (though I've seen the YouTube and Vevo apps, and they are great).
And some things are still confusing. Sometimes, to go back to the home screen, you say "Go home." Sometimes you say "Kinect hub." When you launch an app using Kinect, you're still taken immediately to the version of the app that requires a controller, so you then have to launch the other version to continue using your voice or gestures. When you download a game, you can't confirm with your voice--only with gestures or the controller, even if you browsed for, found, and selected the game using your voice. Sometimes you say "item one" to launch the first item in a list, and sometimes you can say the name of that item. None of this is hard, of course, but it's not as consistent and streamlined as I'd like. Partly that's because the Xbox 360 has rapidly become a jack of every possible TV-related trade, but stuff like that could be simplified.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't note that the Kinect's recognition of both voice and gesture is not perfect. I often, maybe a quarter or a third of the time, need to say "Xbox." twice to get its attention. Items very rarely are selected incorrectly, but it's not particularly uncommon to have to repeat your selection two or three times. And you have to call up the Kinect menu by saying "Xbox" an awful lot--every time you open or close an app. I understand that's to minimize accidental selection, but I shouldn't have to say "Xbox" quite so often.
KEEP IT COMING
I'm really pleased with this update. It's the first time in months I've been really excited about the Kinect--there's something so sci-fi and cool about issuing commands, even terse pre-composed commands, to your TV. I really love flitting around the menus, and I'm not just happy but actually sort of relieved that Microsoft seems to understand the power of this thing they've created and is going to be focusing on improving it further. It's not the complete replacement for remote controls I think it can and will be, not yet. And there are some UI issues to work out (although it must be said that the new Xbox UI is vastly better, prettier, and more usable than before). But especially for those of us who aren't really gamers, this is a welcome and necessary update. Microsoft is trying to sneakily take over your living room with the Xbox, and I'm kind of okay with that when it's this fun to play with.