How I learned to stop worrying and love Microsoft’s Kinect

As Microsoft’s Kinect sells its 8 millionth unit, Ryan finally overcomes his inhibitions and has a go…

Kinect

Breaking news: Kinect is very, very popular. According to Microsoft, it’s managed to sell 8 million units since its launch two months ago – not bad for a peripheral some commentators had consigned to the scrapheap before it even went on the market.

I’ve been trying to avoid Kinect like Pac-Man avoids ghosts. I saw an Xbox 360 with one of the infernal devices strapped to it at a Sega press day about five months ago. People were flailing their arms to Sonic Free Riders, and it looked terrible. I studiously ignored both the game and the Kinect, choosing to play Vanquish instead.

Kinect is like the Wii, only worse. With Nintendo’s pale wonder, you only have to move your arms about a bit to play a game. In the case of the Kinect, your entire body is an ungainly, shuddering, vase-breaking controller.

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Kinect reminds me of several things I dread most: public humiliation, accidental injury and street performers. For me, they all amount to the same thing – mime artists, buskers and close-up magicians, for a reason I’ve never fathomed, always pick me out of a crowd. Even though I’ve spent countless years perfecting a fixed facial expression that says, “Go to hell”, still they pick me.

Kinect, which requires extended periods of arm flapping, jumping and shouting to operate, reminds me of being chosen to participate in dreadful magic tricks against my will. Picture the situation: in the midst of a drunken revelry, someone has the bright idea of firing up the Xbox. With a flash of horror, you notice the tell-tale signs: the sofas pushed to the edges of the room. The cracked windows. The scratched wallpaper. The pets cowering in the corner. Your hosts have purchased a Kinect.

“Go on! You’ll enjoy it!” They’ll say, as something called Dance! Dance! Humiliation boots up on the screen. Before you know it, you’re shuddering and jerking around somebody else’s living room, upsetting furniture and terrifying the cat.

Having managed to avoid Kinect for months, I was finally cornered by one on New Year’s Eve. With only a few hours left of 2010, I found myself trapped in a friend’s living room with one of the infernal devices jutting out from under a television the size of a squash court. From the corner of the room, I could feel the robotic eye of Microsoft staring at me with a detached air of evil.

Still recovering from a bout of manflu, I sulked, arms folded, through a bout of Dance! Dance! Humiliation while everyone else flailed their limbs to Lady Gaga like evangelists dropped from an aeroplane.

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Then on came Kinect Sports, and after much cajoling, I reluctantly joined in. I played table tennis, waving my arms around like I’m trying to catch bees in a wind tunnel. Gradually, I notice something: a weird, warm feeling. Not enjoyment, exactly, or even excitement, but a vague feeling of surprise. I’m actually impressed: Kinect works.

We have a bout of boxing. It’s quite good. The track and field mode, with its hurdles, javelin throwing and 100 metre sprints, is very good. Regardless of whether you particularly like these hand-flapping peripherals or not, there’s no denying that the piece of hardware Microsoft has produced is mightily impressive.

My first experience of Kinect therefore left me with a feeling of grudging respect. It’s still not a peripheral I could imagine working with most kinds of game (and if I were to buy a Kinect of my own, I would never, ever play the thing with the curtains open), but Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi has Child Of Eden on the way, which looks genuinely fascinating. It makes me wonder what other developers could come up with if they were given the time and funding.

Nevertheless, there’s still something vaguely sinister about the Kinect. I think it’s the thought of that single, watchful eye recording your every ridiculous move. Who’s to say it’s not sending that data back to Bill Gates’ retirement home for his dubious viewing pleasure?

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Worse still, the thing could suddenly become sentient and take over your entire house like that crazy machine in Demon Seed. You’ll be sitting there one evening, watching EastEnders, when all of a sudden the lights will go dim, the doors and windows will lock, and a pixelated, malevolent-looking face will appear on your television screen.

And from the Kinect, in a voice as cold and grating as a rusty wheel, a despotic voice will ring out, “Dance. Dance for my pleasure…”

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