I recently had a long discussion with a friend and fellow gamer who is far from the disposition of “cautiously optimistic” with regard to Kinect, Microsoft’s new and already ground-breaking peripheral for the Xbox 360. Cautiously optimistic seems to be the general consensus for people who have bought the device or are waiting on a more developed game library before committing.

Personally, I was on board before I got the device myself and this will be an article talking about why I had that attitude as well as what has happened since launch to reinforce it.

When I first heard about Kinect (when it was called Natal) I would have agreed with anyone saying it was going to be a clunky over-promised answer to the Nintendo Wii. Like many others, I didn’t see any application beyond weird DIY engineering projects with no marketability and a library of games that is 99% made up of what my friend sneeringly called “crapware”. I was never a fan of the Wii and predicted at the outset that within a few years the hype would die down and it would be more paperweight and less must-have addition to every household. I know many people around the world still enjoy the Wii and that Nintendo has sold a fuckton of them over the past few years. That said, I’m pretty sure my prediction has come true for the majority of early-adopters who are also confirmed gamers. Nobody I know who has a Wii plays it regularly.

Anyway, this article isn’t about the Wii. But allow me one final dig: the Kinect’s basic responsiveness to input is more precise and rapid than any Wii I’ve ever played. This was an unexpected thing.

Whether or not people still play them, Microsoft has just made the tech redundant. By successfully introducing accessible motion capture technology to the consumer, they have changed more than just gaming. However, as my friend aptly declared, the Kinect is supposed to be a gaming peripheral. Whether or not it succeeds or fails in that function does matter and thus I will focus first on that element.

Currently, Kinect does not have a large library of games. The bulk of them are the same types of games that proved super-popular on the Wii. These include rhythm games of various kinds, movie tie-ins trying to cash in on the novelty of body-as-controller, as well as minigame collections that are woefully underdeveloped and seldom have much compelling content beyond a few hours with company when the device is first set up. I only needed to play Kinect Adventures once to know what it really was. Because of the unspectacular launch line-up, many are already declaring the Kinect experiment over and dead. This is incredibly short-sighted for two reasons:

1. Every major console launch has been, with the exception of one or two early wins, disappointing to say the least. Sony is especially culpable in this as both PS2 and especially PS3 took some time for the games to catch up.

2. The games are coming, guys.

Point 2 is sort of contingent on whether people believe that games like Child of Eden or Steel Battallion are going to be any good. The fact of the matter is that Kinect isn’t just a new gaming console where we can expect some of the same types of games as the old ones. Kinect is an entirely different approach to gaming, a niche interface that is going to start by exploiting the obvious novelties of the tech to create games. No one should be expecting to play Call of Duty 10 on a Kinect for the foreseeable future.

That said, in accordance with Point 1, the Kinect must be considered a console in its own right. This is because, unlike the Wii, the Xbox is now (with Kinect) a sort of hybrid machine. We don’t really have a way of talking about something like the Kinect or Sony Move except as sort of bridge engines that reproduce some of the elements of a “new” console. The chief element is that games are going to be designed specifically for these peripherals and rarely, especially in the case of the Kinect, offer very many options for opting out of motion control. Again, don’t expect to play Call of Duty 10 using Kinect while your buddy uses his controller. At least not any time soon, if ever.

So out of discussing those two points, a third point has naturally emerged:

3. Kinect is going to have its own specific types of games with a very different gameplay philosophy.

This has held true with the Wii and is a phenomenon that the Kinect was designed to emulate and surpass. If you don’t like the kinds of games that motion control trends toward, there isn’t much anyone can say to convince you that Kinect is worthwhile, especially now. You probably avoided the Wii as well or were burned when the design philosophy didn’t evolve (it didn’t have to when so many novelty games were selling based on the exact same design principles as the launch titles).

Supposing that’s the case, you might look at the Kinect as another platform wherein interesting things are possible but will be seldom if ever dared due to the surefire appeal of the basic novelty of the device: using your body as a controller. If that perspective proves true, we’ll probably never see games that take things any further than Kinect Adventures. Right?

Wrong. There is already progress in design philosophy on Kinect. Consider the harmless and cute Kinectimals, a game that is very obviously marketed at girls. It is an interesting case, though, because while the core gameplay revolves around novel motion-control minigames that are seldom more complex than Kinect Adventures, there is a subtle element that implies the weird and potentially unsettling potential of the Kinect. This element is in the options presented to the player in terms of interacting with the animal cubs. Not only do you play games with them to increase points and unlock areas, collectibles, etc… you also have some limited ability to treat them like you would any pet with little measurable reward besides a feeling of kinship with what is essentially a digital presentation of a complex AI script.

Why does this matter? Of course, most adults or older kids who play games like this are going to be fully aware that this is a game and you don’t need to pet or feed your cub beyond what the game requires you to do to achieve the next level. The activity itself is somewhat repetitive so there is little “fun” to be had in doing it. So why then does my 7 year old spend an inordinate amount of time doing these things when playing the game?

I think it is a first step to a situation where the relationship between players and game characters goes beyond what is currently available in videogames. Mostly we think of characters, especially in highly story-driven games, in much the same way we would if they were in a novel. We relate to them, root for them, and maybe feel a shred of responsibility toward them since their fate is in our hands. In more first person games (in terms of interface, not camera orientation) we are allowed to infuse the protagonist with our own attitudes and personality or customize appearances and so on to suit us. We are able to manifest an avatar into the game world. Games are the first medium (going back to stuff like dungeons and dragons and further to elaborate roleplaying fantasies that children and adults have probably concocted for centuries) that allow us to do this with audio-visual feedback that enhances, realizes, and stylizes our normal earthly experience. However, the experience of the game characters is always distanced from us. They never move how we move, they have scripted movements and reactions tagged to button presses.

So why is Kinectimals an example of an early step forward from this? Well, it’s a game that suggests the possibility of a more meaningful relationship with a game character which in turn suggests a more meaningful depth of experience in terms of inserting ourselves into our games. If we remember Tamagotchi we might have another early example of a game character for which our attention and playing style held manifest consequences. The cubs in Kinectimals will not die or go bad if you neglect them, but they are also more immediately reactive to our input. You don’t press a button to feed your cub, you literally hold out food to them. When you pet them, the Kinect manifests ghostly hands that follow your movements as you interact with the pet. That is a truly novel experience made possible by the Kinect and a true step beyond what was achievable with the Wii (or what will be achievable with the Move).

From where Kinectimals leaves us if we care to notice, it is easy to imagine possible developments of this gameplay philosophy. Imagine a version of Hard Rain where you yourself move in the place of the game’s characters rather than relying on button sequences and joystick motions. In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect type of game to take advantage of the level of immersion the Kinect has made available to us. As AI gets better, a generation of kids like my daughter will grow up playing with digital pets and characters for its own sake, rather than to achieve game goals or Skinner’s Box rewards. Perhaps my generation of gamer will always look at games as linear constructs with win/lose conditions and fail to adopt a new and supplementary design philosophy, but that will be on us and not on the technology itself.

Now I’ve focused on just one example of how Kinect has implied a step forward in gaming. I have limited experience with the device having only played 2 games, but I have already found an example. Whether or not the Kinect capitalizes on these possibilities is a question I can’t answer but at least we can say that there is something to this shit. I’m sure other games have other examples, maybe even more subtle than the one I’m using but hopefully not, and I’d like to hear more about that from people with more experience with Kinect than I have.

Unlike my friend, I believe the Kinect is an important piece of technology for reasons beyond what it can do as a gaming device. What Kinect really is is a motion-capture engine brought down to a consumer level. Motion-capture has been around for a while and it has probably long been an easy thing to program reactions in a digital space to movements made by motion-captured subjects. The cutting edge of the technology is being used to produce films like Avatar and is probably well beyond what is available in something like Kinect. You won’t hear me saying that motion-capture/control is some revolutionary new technology because it isn’t.

But never before has it been brought to the mainstream as accessibly or in as sophisticated a form as this. Because the technology is now in our hands, however limited the power, true innovation is already taking place. Microsoft has made a completely different and novel way of interacting with digital systems completely open and affordable to inventors, engineers, and artists. They don’t get the credit for inventing the tech, obviously, but no one else has bothered putting it in the hands of the populace. The Nintendo Wii also had people hacking its hardware and software to produce interesting experiments and inventions, but the limitations of a wand-based interface seems to have prevented the hardware from ever being used to develop interesting new shit like the Kinect’s has… less than a year after being launched.

Consider these videos, showing off some cool shit that ranges from novel coolness to high-potential new applications of the basic technology.

Kinect used to create surgical simulation app for robotic tools.

Kinect used to control movement of robot.

Kinect used to give roomba a  guidance system.

Kinect used to create 3D reconstruction of real environments.

And those are all examples found after a 2 minute search. There are probably a lot more completed or underway projects like this. The point isn’t to marvel at the cool shit these people are doing but to use your imagination a bit and picture some of the potential involved here. Motion-capture/control technology has been available for a while, but never in such an affordable form.

Now that it is more affordable, companies will begin trying to exploit the trend potential of the technology. Before long, it may become a stable interface for everything from specific types of games to selecting which movies to watch on Netflix (a function coming out in Spring, actually).

We are used to holding controllers and remotes. It’s going to be our kids who pick this up as a new and natural way to interface with technology. In 20 years I see us cynically dismissing fancy motion-controlled cars the same way my grandpa looks at his complex satellite remote or the already-2nd-nature keyboard and mouse interface with frustrated contempt.