Blake Snow

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Kinect is the most impressive Microsoft product in 15 years

kinect

I’ve been playing with Kinect over the past few days, and I gotta say: It’s the most significant consumer product the company’s released since Windows 95. It’s not a home run—at least not yet. But it’s definitely a double stretching for a triple.

It’s also extraordinarily cool and brimming with promise.

It works like this: You connect the pictured camera peripheral to an Xbox 360 and set it above or below your TV, like you would a Wii sensor. Then you step in front of it and control your TV thingies by extending, swiping, and and holding out your hand as if you were performing a Jedi mind-trick. The device also supports spoken commands, such as”Xbox, play disc.”

The killer-app by far is a game called Dance Central. It senses everything your body does on screen and scores you. It even records your awkward dance moves and then plays them back, in-real time, while syncing your steps to the beat. Very impressive. Not to mention fun. That said, I get the feeling Dance Central will be the biggest party software this holiday and into next year—right on par with Wii and Rock Band parties before it.

As for the other eight games Microsoft sent me, few stand out. Kinect Sports Soccer is legitimately fun. So are a couple shallow mini-games on Kinect Adventures—smash ball and river rafting. What’s cool about those games is they let a second player step in front of the screen and immediately start playing, without restarting the game.

Will Kinect be as culturally significant as Wii and iPhone in terms of revolutionary control? I don’t think so for the following two reasons: menu navigation and price. It doesn’t make sense to hold your hands out horizontally to navigate menus. As is, it feels like a chore and isn’t as responsive or as fast as a mouse, Wii pointer, iPhone swipe, or traditional gamepad. Even Dance Central suffers from this.

Secondly, it’ll cost you upwards of $400 to play the best game right now. $200 for the console + $150 for the Kinect add-on + $50 for Dance Central. There is a combo bundle for $300, but you’ll still want to fork over an additional $50 for Dance Central to get the most out of the system. Remember, the $250 Wii had its best game bundled in (Wii Sports), whereas the $350 Kinect doesn’t. That said, you won’t have to buy extra controllers with Kinect, so it may be a wash.

Still, I suspect many consumers will view Kinect as costing “too much,” at least from an initial perception standpoint, even though total cost of ownership is equal. That could stifle long-term traction. As could a lack of compelling games.

Obviously, I’m not clairvoyant, so who knows what the future holds for Kinect and how consumers will respond? But I do know this. It’s nice to finally see Microsoft pioneer an original idea, instead of regurgitating their version of iPods, Apple Stores, Google, search advertising, and cloud computing without adding anything new.

Admittedly, Kinect owes a lot to Wii. But it also goes places Nintendo and other competitors can’t. I could be wrong, but I believe that’s called leadership.

Good job, Microsoft. I’m anxious to see where you and your development partners take this thing. Not to mention how it might be applied to other user experiences.