Microsoft has blown the lid off of its new Xbox, and it looks promising. It also looks uncomfortably familiar, with a camera control system we've seen before. Yes, the next Xbox is getting a next Kinect.
We heard a lot of promises about the old Kinect, and the new one is getting even more promises. Voice control, with more voices! Gesture control, with more gestures!
It sounds exciting and the carefully choreographed demonstration during the Xbox One presentation was very impressive, but I'm skeptical. Mostly because I've used the old Kinect, and a handful of other voice-control systems for home entertainment devices, and the experience wasn't great. By making the Kinect a centrepiece of the Xbox One, Microsoft is counting on it overcoming the problems of the previous Kinect, and that's going to take some work.
So far, voice control for game systems and home theatre products haven't been very forgiving. While the ITProPortal Labs aren't the most acoustically ideal place for testing these things, it isn't particularly loud at any given time, either. Despite that, Kinect's voice commands have been historically inconsistent when I've used them. Sometimes it didn't understand my command. Sometimes it expected a different command. Sometimes it couldn't tell I was talking because someone 10 feet away was speaking. These are all fairly big issues, and while an expanded set of commands will fix some of the problems by making the Kinect more capable of understanding you, it still has to get past the problems of ambient sound and muddled commands.
The expanded vocabulary of the new Kinect might help some of those problems, but it still has to be able to make out the words. Voice recognition has improved by leaps and bounds in the last few years, but I'll only believe that the new Kinect will be at my home entertainment beck and call when I've used it for a bit without pleading "Xbox on. Xbox on? Xbox, please turn on. Xbox, why aren't you on? Xbox, what do you want from me?"
Gesture controls are even more sketchy, though at least some of the problems of the old Kinect might be fixed by a simple change. The original Kinect didn't have a very wide lens. It meant you had to sit relatively far back from the Kinect for it to recognise you. If the new Kinect simply has a wider lens, problem solved.
However, like voice commands, gesture commands still need to be processed properly, and even with a lens the Xbox One has to be smart enough to understand the gestures. Again, the first Kinect didn't handle this very well. Frantic waving and frustrated gestures dominated my Kinect experience when I wasn't standing in just the right position with just the right lighting. Adding two-handed grabbing gestures and who knows what other, more complicated moves involving fingers, adds a pretty big layer of uncertainty to the system.
Microsoft was careful to downplay video game integration of the new Kinect at the presentation. This is a good sign, because as the last generation of video games demonstrated, motion and voice controls don't belong at the centre of any video game that is not uniquely suited for it. Throwing a ball in a minigame or waving a wand in an interactive story? Fun. Swinging a weightless sword as you fight through hundreds of demons or turning an invisible steering wheel to bank around turns? Not nearly as enjoyable.
Physical feedback and limited translation of motion make a lot of video games fun when just pantomiming the action would be tedious and tiring. We have buttons and analogue sticks for good reasons, and those reasons are Link's torn rotator cuff and Marcus Fenix's shin splints. Limited gestures and voice commands can enhance action games, but the sort of over-the-top action we love in AAA video games are the sort we need to control with our thumbs, not our flailing limbs.
The Xbox One and the new Kinect are making a lot of promises about voice and gesture commands, but considering how the first Kinect worked, I'll believe it when I see it. Maybe a new lens, a new microphone, and a better AI will really turn the Xbox One into the all-seeing, all-hearing altar of home entertainment I've been waiting for. Until that happens, though, my hand will stay glued to a remote or a gamepad.