Xbox Kinect Does Not Play Well With Couch Potatoes

Near the beginning of my trip out here in Los Angeles for E3, I heard the oddest of rumors: Microsoft's controller-free sensor array, Kinect, would only work if you were standing up. No way, right?

For the last several days I've been peppering the conversations I've had with game creators at this massive video game showcase with the "sitting question." Can Kinect really not work when you're sitting? Is that the reason why every Kinect developer makes me stand to play their game? Is the future of voice-controlled, gesture-triggered television viewing a future of watching TV while standing up?

Xbox Kinect Does Not Play Well With Couch Potatoes

What Microsoft says

Officially, Microsoft says that the sitting question is unfounded. In a mock Q&A that had appeared on the company's press site but has since been removed, they field this question themselves:

Q: Are there any games or experiences I can do while sitting on the couch?
A: Absolutely. The games and experiences are designed to be as fun to watch as they are to play-they're designed to get you off the couch. And when you want to enjoy movies, music, and ESPN on Xbox 360, you can control your entertainment hands free from the comfort of your couch.

Couch potatoes have nothing to worry about, then, right? They shouldn't fear a future that would have them enjoying ESPN and Forza Motorsport on their own two feet?

No. There is some cause for concern.

What Game Creators Say

One developer with whom I spoke and who is familiar with how Microsoft is briefing studios making games for Kinect said the company has specifically advised developers to not make games that would involve the player's sitting down.

None of the games shown for Kinect at a showcase early in the week were set up for sitting. Kinectimals, a cute take on Nintendogs-style games, but with tiger cubs, was presented as a player-stand-here demo. That's logical, because the game involves walking up to the animal and then jumping or running or doing some other action you want the animal to replicate. The game's lead creator, Frontier Design's David Braben shrugged when I asked him if the game could be played sitting down. He guessed some of it might work, but it didn't sound like he'd tried, possibly because it was irrelevant to his game design.

You might have expected a seated Kinect experience from the Forza Motorsport team. Those folks are making Kinect driving games and tech demos. They've got a fun highway driving challenge that involves standing in front of the Kinect and steering by holding your hands in front of your body as if you were turning a real steering wheel. The perspective for this game experiment is inside the car, through the eyes of a driver. Rolling your shoulders in front of Kinect turns the game's camera view slightly, letting you look around inside the car. Your lower body is not used — no foot-forward-to-accelerate as was seen in a similar demonstration last year with racing game Burnout. Nevertheless, you have to play this one standing up if you are playing it at E3.

I asked one of the two members of Forza development studio Turn 10 if I could play their demo sitting down. They said I could not, that it was "optimized for standing."

The thought that prompted me to start asking the "sitting question" to so many Kinect-connected game developers and executives at E3 was that the Kinect's sensor can't clearly read a human skeleton if a person is seated. Some developers with whom I was theorizing about this guessed that the Kinect would become confused by the bent knees of a seated gamer — that it would need a player to always return to a resting position that has all their joints on one flat plane, which is the case when you are standing, not when you are sitting. No Kinect developer could or would get that specific with me, so I'm left to guess.

Xbox Kinect Does Not Play Well With Couch Potatoes

The second Forza demonstration involves walking up to a virtual car and peering at it from various angles. You control this by standing in front of the Kinect and then turning your body, kneeling or side-stepping to push the camera view around the car or to lower it for close inspection. You can open the driver's door of a virtual Ferrari and sit in the driver's seat. But, even in this Forza demo, when you sit in the driver's seat, you are standing in real life. That's the kind of thing that makes you wonder.

Throughout this week I have watched or tried fitness games, dancing games and several games reminiscent of Wii Sports. All are played standing up, and all have good game design reasons to be played that way. So maybe there is no tech limitation to Kinect regarding your couch? Maybe these games are all stand-up just because that's what is best?

"Sitting is something we're still calibrating for."

I'd be worried less about this sitting thing — and I would stop asking the "sitting question" — if I had not been made to watch a movie via Kinect while standing up.

On Monday evening I participated in a brief demonstration of how Kinect could be used to control the Xbox 360 dashboard. This demonstration had me standing in front of the Kinect and using both hand-waves and voice commands to flip through menus on a TV and load applications such as movie-watching and video chat. There were chairs at this demo, but they were off to the side. I had to stand up.

The Kinect is superb at recognizing a standing player. It reads the presence of your body, detects 19 or so key joints in your frame and tracks your movement with magical immediacy. I had no more trouble swiping through the Kinect menus than I did steering the car in the Forza demo. Voice commands worked nicely as well, though I lamented that the Kinect couldn't distinguish my commands from anyone else's in the room. What I didn't understand is why I had to stand through all of this.

I liked telling the Xbox 360 to pause a movie. I liked extending my hand and dragging the movie's progress bar left or right, as if I was using the Star Wars Force to fast forward and rewind. But, I asked the Microsoft people running the demo, could I drag a chair over and try this sitting down?

No.

"Sitting is something we're still calibrating for," one of them told me.

Some time during the demo they showed me a video that simulated Kinect-powered video chat. That was going to be calibrated for sitting, right? And movie watching isn't really going to require me to stand, correct?

The Microsoft people pointed out that for entertainment applications like these I would be using a lot of voice commands and those would work just fine from a couch. That backs up the simulated Q&A bit from Microsoft about how, "when you want to enjoy movies, music, and ESPN on Xbox 360, you can control your entertainment hands free from the comfort of your couch." They don't say anything about games. And they don't say anything about relying on voice-command rather than body motion detection.

One of the Microsoft people with whom I was discussing the "sitting question" said the chair stuff is just more complicated. You could be sitting far away, at an angle. True, though I had asked to move a chair in front of the TV before being denied.

A demo reel Microsoft released of families playing Kinect does does show them using hand gestures to manipulate a movie while sitting, but it is not clear if they are really using the tech. At least it is a sign that Microsoft wants Kinect to work like this.

UPDATE: A Microsoft spokesperson told me after the publication of this article that the company is certain that Kinect gesture control will work for movies, ESPN and other "entertainment" features before the sensor is launched. As I originally reported, that is not an implemented feature yet. The spokesperson was not able to provide any update on the Kinect's tolerance of a person who sits while playing games.

Xbox Kinect Does Not Play Well With Couch Potatoes

Standing And Delivering

Sitting is an important, if not essential, posture for gaming. You sit to play Halo. You sit to play Fable. You can sit to play most Wii games, even though you risk flailing or injuring the people next to you. Sitting is good. Microsoft has presented Kinect as a control option relevant to all gamers. And developers have theorized that it could be used to enhance even the most hardcore — shall we call them "sitting-centric"? — games. How Kinect would work with a game we normally play seated is now an open question.

To those doubting Kinect, I can say that, after a week of playing more of its games, it works great. But after a week of noticing a lack of seated play — after a week of not getting a single developer or Microsoft person to clearly state that Kinect can track your body while you sit — I'm left to wonder if this impressive tech has a problem. Controller-free gaming is an exciting future. Couch-free gaming (and maybe movie-watching and video-chatting)? Say it ain't so.