Faster Forward: Xbox Kinect offers hands-free gaming in large living rooms

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 6:18 AM

Microsoft's Xbox 360 video-game console got a little easier to use at 12:01 this morning. That's when the Redmond, Wash., firm began selling Kinect -- a clever accessory that takes the Xbox's controller out of the hands of gamers.

Where the Xbox's usual remote device sports 14 buttons and joysticks to direct the action onscreen, the $149.99 Kinect uses a set of video sensors to track your movements -- allowing you to act out whatever action you want to see on the screen.

It's like gaming on Nintendo's Wii, just without the risk of pitching a Wiimote into your TV screen. And with a few extra issues of its own.

Setting up a Kinect on an Xbox 360 (both loaned by Microsoft's PR department) was not the smoothest experience. After plugging the Kinect into one of the Xbox's USB ports and a separate power outlet and downloading the first of multiple software updates, its setup routine revealed a positioning issue: When I nestled the Kinect into the space between my HDTV and a soundbar speaker, it couldn't see my feet.

A dusty VHS tape turned out to be just the right size to elevate the Kinect for unobstructed vision, as confirmed by this message on screen: "Kinect can see you. You look great!"

A second issue then materialized: Kinect needs an unobstructed "play space" six to eight feet from the TV. Even after moving the coffee table out of the way, my living room barely qualified.

But once configured -- and after downloading an additional software update for each of the four games I sampled -- Kinect got fun in a hurry.

In Kinect Adventures, the title Microsoft includes with the Kinect itself and its $299.99 and $399.99 Xbox-with-Kinect bundles, I stepped from side to side and jumped up and down to steer a raft down a river, then waved my arms and legs to throw and kick a ball at stacked blocks in a fusion of volleyball and Breakout.

Kinect Joy Ride had me holding two hands out as if I were gripping a steering wheel to direct a car down a racetrack. (I careened off the road about as often as I do using a conventional controller in any racing game.)

In Kinect Sports, I ran in place, went through the motions of bowling and discus and javelin throwing and pantomimed table tennis and soccer.

And Dance Central ... well, I don't want to talk about that. But I will note that by nailing a mere 6 percent of the dance moves in the one song I tried, I fell below even my own woeful expectations.

Seventeen Kinect titles are available in all.

Dancing aside, learning Kinect's moves wasn't an issue, and the system didn't seem to have trouble keeping up with me in each game. It was, however, easy to step out of the play space or bump into furniture.

There's also the risk of people looking at you funny -- something to think about if your living room features street-facing windows. For a hint of what passersby could witness, check out the photos and video clips most Kinect games take, and which you can then share with friends who don't have enough blackmail material on you already.

Kinect can also log you into your Xbox profile automatically if you set up its optional Kinect ID face-recognition system. After holding various poses in different spots on the floor (what did I say about looking ridiculous?), this software had learned my face and then logged me in on its own.

Kinect doubles as an alternate user interface for some of the Xbox's own software, but it doesn't shine in that role. It's sci-fi fantastic to be able to select a function by moving a hand in the air to slide a hand cursor over an onscreen button -- or to speak a simple command like "Xbox: play disc" to the Kinect's microphone -- but it's easy to navigate to screens in which Kinect gestures no longer work and you must pick up the Xbox controller. Finally, the motion sensors' accuracy sometimes appeared to degrade when I had to select objects toward the edges of the screen.

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