The Kinect is pretty good, but who is satisfied with "pretty good"? Having spent many days with Kinect, I've got five requests for how Microsoft could improve this thing.
1. More Than 25% Kinect In My Dashboard, Please
I've raved about the Kinect's support for voice control. I love talking to my TV and actually having it react to what I bark at it. I don't love that I can do this for my Xbox's ESPN app but not for its Netflix app. I want to talk to its Facebook app, even. I want to talk to my Xbox Achievements, and I don't want to go to the Zune channel and be relegated to only using my voice for some of the channel's commands. Voice-control is inconsistently available on the Xbox 360 dashboard, which is as disappointing a discovery as having a TV that accepts voice commands only for Showtime and The Learning Channel.
I'm equally disappointed with the inconsistent application of gesture control. I can wave my hands to browse messages from friends, but I can't use gesture to accept a video chat invitation. I can use gesture control in the Kinect wing of the Xbox 360 dashboard but not to browse through the Xbox games marketplace.
This half-step is confusing. We're either in the Minority Report future or we're not, right?
2. Save Me With Speaker-Specific Voice Recognition
The Kinect can distinguish between my voice and your voice. It just doesn't, not when we're in the same room and I keep starting a movie with the command "Xbox Play" and you keep pausing it by saying "Xbox Pause."
Microsoft's lead person on the Kinect project, Alex Kipman said they made Kinect listen to everyone equally on purpose. How do we stop these people from griefing us and ruining our Xbox Kinect experience with unwanted voice commands? "Darwin," Kipman said. "I say, when a little brother or an older brother are playing to grief you, you punch them and they don't do it again…. If it's getting in the way, you say, 'Hey, don't do it.'"
Why leave it to that? "We want to let people around the room have control," he told me. The system can give precedence to the people in control, by locking onto the skeleton of the lead player of a game, but he said Microsoft did not want to lock into one person.
Kipman's a smart man. But I'm voting against this decision. I want Kinect to listen to me and only me — or at least have that option. You never know when the person on the couch next to me might accidentally tell the Xbox to pause.
3. No Buttons? How About Games With Meaningful Voice Control?
Speaking of speaking, I can babble commands to my Xbox dashboard app, but I might as well be talking to a PlayStation 3 or Atari 2600 when I'm playing Xbox Kinect games. All of the launch games watch for gesture control. Few of them have any meaningful voice control, and that's even if we include naming one's panther in Kinectimals after LL Cool J as meaningful voice control.
Voice control in Kinect games wouldn't just be a luxury; it's the added buttons we need. I can only pretzel my body into so many shapes, so I could use a few more input options. Maybe I could tell my game to pause? Or ask it to switch camera angles? Or to turbo boost my race car?
More voice controls in Kinect games, please, and I sure hope the reason we don't have many yet is because the Kinect can double as a party-chat replacement for the Xbox headset.
4. Improve Your Pause "Button"
If there is one standardized element in all Kinect games — at least there's one! — it's the "guide gesture." Right arm pointed at six o'clock. Left arm pointed at 7 or 8 o'clock. This gesture pauses every game. What else happens when you do that move? You never can be sure. Custom menus appear for each game, the comfort of getting the same options every time you press the Xbox 360 controller's silver middle button in non-Kinect games replaced with too much mystery.
If Microsoft is willing to make the results of their standardized gesture more standard, how about creating a few more standard gestures. Surely there can be one for skipping cut-scenes (nothing that involves fingers, people — Kinect's sensors can't distinguish them).
5. Show Me How Much Room I Really Need
Kinect needs space. We know this. I am less worried about this now than I used to be. But everyone who considers buying one or buying a new game for it is going to wonder if they have enough room.
During the Kinect set-up, or during its extra-specific calibration for facial recognition, or during its games' distinct, abstract ways of showing me I'm standing too close or too far away… can't I ever have the option of simply seeing my living room displayed on my TV with some bright color painted over the area I should have clear to play?
Just show me where borders are. Let me see how far my couch sticks into Dance Central's play space. Let me see if turning the Kinect just far enough this way or that frees it up for the next game I just popped in.
If the Kinect can see and judge my room, let me see what it's seeing and judging. If someone makes this happen, the Kinect and I will both be less confused.
Those are the five things I'd like to see Microsoft improve with Kinect. For those who have the new sensor, what upgrades would you like?