Monday, December 11, 2017

Microsoft's White Elephant: The Kinect


Those who never owned an Xbox 360, or those who did, but were never really interested in, nor followed all the hype that Microsoft created around the Kinect, might find it a bit surprising, given how little impact the Kinect had on video gaming, but this device was absolutely massively advertised and pushed by Microsoft back in the day, with borderline outrageous promises and hype. And we are talking about massive promotional campaigns.

The original slogan for the Kinect was "You Are The Controller". The initial narrative, prior to the Kinect's launch (and a bit after that), was that the traditional controller was a "barrier", a very limited form of control that severely limited possibilities. According to the marketing campaigns, "Kinect will change living room entertainment forever".

Microsoft's promotional demonstrations at E3 2009, and several subsequent ones, promised absolutely incredible real-time interactivity. (Given that the actual published Kinect turned out to be enormously less accurate and powerful than advertised leads me to believe that those E3 demonstrations were fully scripted, running pre-recorded animations, rather than being real-time live captures of the movements of the performer on stage.)

Among the things that were promised (with live demonstrations, allegedly in real-time, although as said, I have my doubts) were:

- Accurate full-motion capture of the entire body, with the in-game character following the position and movement of every limb and head very accurately. In one demo this allowed full control of a character wielding a lightsaber, to fight against hordes of enemies, with accurate movements and all kinds of maneuvers (such as force pushes, etc.)

- Moreover, the detection would be so accurate as to allow very precise maneuvering, allowing very small, precise and subtle movements, such as hand gestures, to accurately control something. This included things like opening and closing one's hand, or even moving individual fingers, and manipulating in-game objects with great precision (to even the millimeter range).

- Using the traditional controller would become essentially obsolete, as everything would be usable with the Kinect alone, using gestures and voice. In fact, it was promised that many things would actually become easier with the Kinect than with the controller, especially thanks to the smart voice recognition system. (For example, not only could you make the Xbox 360 play music by saying "xbox, play some music", but you could moreover specify a particular song, an artist, or a music genre, for instance, and the system would quickly find songs matching the specified parameters.)

- Video chat with remote players would be possible, easy, and practical. (In fact, the Kinect could even follow the user's position so as to keep him or her always centered on the view.)

- The Kinect would have full facial and shape recognition, distinguishing between different users, and being able to track the position of each user, and even being able to scan objects of a certain shape, such as a scateboard or a piece of paper, in real time. In one demo, for instance, a player draws a picture on a paper, shows it to the Kinect and "hands it over" to the in-game character, and this character reaches and grabs the paper, which now has the same picture in-game (which the Kinect, at least allegedly, scanned in real-time from the paper using its camera.) The Kinect is able to see that the paper is coming closer, and thus the game character can react to it in real-time, reaching his hand and "grabbing" the paper.

Microsoft got some really big name people to promote the Kinect at some of their E3 presentations, such as Steven Spielberg himself. Several big-name game companies also announced full Kinect support in many of their future games and game franchises, promising significant improvements in gameplay and immersion.

The first launch of the Kinect was made quite a massive spectacle in itself, with tons of money poured into it. Microsoft really, really pushed the Kinect to be a complete revolution of video gaming. A completely new form of control, of playing games, that would make the old systems obsolete, antiquated and limited. (Does this sound familiar? *ahem* VR *ahem*)

Of course reality turned out to be quite a letdown, and the massive hyping campaign to be completely out of proportions. The camera image resolution as well as the framerate of the final retail version of the Kinect was but a fraction of what was promised (something that Microsoft directly admitted a bit prior to publication, citing cost and technical problems both on the Kinect side and the Xbox 360 side), affecting most of the promised features. Motion detection was much poorer than promised, facial recognition was almost non-existent and extremely flawed, as well as the promised ability to scan objects (such as pictures drawn on paper) being likewise pretty much non-existent. Accurately scanning the entire body of a user and replicating it on screen was likewise unrealistic.

I do not know if the Kinect would have worked as promised if it had the technical specifications originally planned for it (both in terms of camera resolution and capture framerate), but at the nerfed specs it was finally published it made the system almost unusable. Rather than replacing the regular controller, and being at least as fluent as, if not even more fluent than it, it was a nightmare to use. Just navigating the home screen, or the main menu of any game, using gestures, was often a pain. Very inaccurate and inconvenient. Most games were unable to accurately detect but the broadest of gestures (even though the E3 demos had promised the Kinect to be able to detect even minor gestures, such as opening and closing one's hand, or even the position of individual fingers), and this made even the simple act of navigating a menu very inaccurate and inconvenient. (In fact, many games opted to skip even trying to detect hand gestures, and implemented the simpler method of just broadly detecting where the user's hand is, and if the user keeps their hand on top of a button for long enough, the game would then activate that button. Needless to say, this isn't the most convenient and efficient or fastest way, nor the most accurate way, of navigating a menu.)

Needless to say, this was quite a big disappointment, both for users and for game developers. Neither of which got the wondrous new form of control that was promised.

Even so, Microsoft still tried to push the Kinect as the next big thing, and induced many game companies to make games for it. Some developers did indeed make Kinect games, even Kinect-only games, especially during its first few years. However, regardless of how much Microsoft pushed the platform, the total number of Kinect games is quite low. Wikipedia lists the Xbox 360 having (at least) 1233 games in total (although the real number is probably a bit higher, as Wikipedia doesn't necessarily list the most obscure games ever released for the console), and from those, only 108 are Kinect-only (with an additional 49 games having optional Kinect support).

108 games is not exactly an abysmally low number of games, but it's still pretty low, considering the success of the Xbox 360 console itself. (Also consider that a good portion of those Kinect-only games are dancing games, which isn't exactly a very popular genre.) The number of games for the Kinect is relatively low, considering how much Microsoft promoted the system.

One would think that after the disappointment that the Kinect was, as it didn't deliver almost any of its promises, and neither the users nor game developers were exactly thrilled about it, Microsoft would have, after a couple of years, just abandoned it and let it die a natural death. But no. For some reason Microsoft was obsessed with the Kinect, for many years to come. So much so that when they designed their next-generation console, the Xbox One (which was published almost exactly 3 years after the original Kinect), they made a new "improved" version of the Kinect for it. They wanted to push it so hard into the market that they actually made it a mandatory peripheral for the Xbox One. Not only would every single console come with the new Kinect bundled with it, but moreover the console wouldn't be usable at all without the Kinect! The Kinect was a mandatory peripheral to just use the console. No Kinect, and the console would refuse to even work!

Due to the massive backlash caused by this announcement, Microsoft reversed that decision just prior to launch, and allowed the console to be used without the Kinect. However, the Kinect would still be bundled with every Xbox One. You couldn't buy one without the other. (It wasn't but almost a year later that Microsoft finally started selling Xbox One's without the Kinect. At about $100 cheaper thanks to that.)

I understand what Microsoft was trying to do: The problem with the Xbox 360 Kinect was that only a fraction of users had it, and thus it wasn't very enticing for game developers to make games for it. However, now that every single user of the Xbox One had a Kinect for sure, that would certainly give incentives to game developers to support it. (After all, that's one of the core ideas of game consoles: Every console owner has the exact same hardware, and this makes the life of game developers much easier. If every console owner has a Kinect, there shouldn't be any problem in adding Kinect support to a game.)

It didn't help. Users still weren't interested in the Kinect, and in fact, the Kinect making the system about $100 more expensive hurt sales of the system quite badly. Perhaps in a vacuum it would have been ok, but the Xbox One had one ginormous adversary at the exact same time: The PS4. Which was selling like hotcakes, while the Xbox One, with its $100 higher price tag, was suffering.

When Microsoft finally started selling the console without the Kinect, its sales figures started improving significantly. (They never reached those of the PS4, but were still significantly better, making the console actually viable.)

Three years after the launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft finally accepted the reality that the Kinect was a completely dead piece of hardware that nobody was interested in. The users weren't interested in it, and game developers weren't interested in it. (There's perhaps no better indication of this than the fact that even though the Xbox One has been on the market for four years, there exist only an abysmal 21 Kinect games for it.)

A nail in the coffin of the poor device was when Microsoft published the Xbox One S, which was a streamlined and slightly more efficient version, and it had no Kinect port at all. (A Kinect can still be connected to it, but it requires a separate USB adapter. The Kinect itself isn't an USB device, instead using its own custom port.)

And, of course, the absolutely final nail in the coffin is the fact that the new Xbox One X has no Kinect support at all. Microsoft has finally effectively declared the system dead for good.

Microsoft really pushed the Kinect to be the next big thing, and probably spent countless millions of dollars in its development and marketing, and did this well beyond what was reasonable. They should have accepted it as a failure in its first couple of years, and not even try to drag it into the Xbox One. The Kinect, however, became some kind of "self-imposed" White Elephant for Microsoft. (In common terminology a "white elephant" is an overly costly possession that cannot be disposed of. In this case, Microsoft imposed this status onto themselves, for at least six years, rather than just getting rid of it.)

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