Xbox 360 Kinect - the nuts and bolts revealed

By Matt Greenop

Microsoft has cleared up the rumours, misinformation, speculation and nagging questions that have plagued gamers for the last twelve months as it delved into details of its new controller-free gaming interface, Kinect.

At a press conference on the eve of the E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles, Microsoft lifted the lid on the 'magic' that was announced a year ago under the working title Project Natal.

Kinect uses a high-tech camera and microphone combo device to map players' movements - and listen to their instructions - to use the Xbox 360 interface and to play games.

The launch date for Kinect in the United States is November 4, and Microsoft promises that Kiwis will see the new system between then and Christmas. It will be available as an add-on, but console bundles will also be on offer, featuring the brand-spanking redesigned Xbox 360 which was also revealed today. Pricing has yet to be announced, either in the US or New Zealand, although unsubstantiated web rumours put it at around US$150.

Aside from game control, there are some superb new tricks - including voice control of movies.

The audience was shown through some clever Xbox integration moves. Players can simply wave their hand to sign in, and again to connect to the Live service, landing on a splash page featuring several applications including Facebook, the new Kinect Chat and the Zune high-def video download service.

Microsoft engineer Ron Forbes then dropped the voice control bombshell - "if you can see it, you can say it".

To control movies it's as simple as saying "Xbox pause" or "Xbox stop", and fast forwarding or rewinding through movies can be controlled with a swipe of the hand on the movie's timeline.

Kinect Chat - potentially a Skype killer - offers video chat with fellow Xbox Live subscribers or with users of Windows Live Messenger. It's even possible to watch a movie with a video chat pal on the other side of the planet. The motorised Kinect unit will track you as you chat, without need to constantly adjust the camera angle.

A nice feature - which alongside Netflix and won't be available to users in our region - was a deal with ESPN that gives subscribers access to 3500 streams of sports games with Xbox Live-unique abilities like playing sports trivia games, or picking which side you're rooting for and sledging your buddies when their team's losing. It was demonstrated by Sports Center's Josh Elliot and Trey Wingo.

Kinect creative director Kudo Tsunoda - who introduced the groundbreaking Project Natal's abilities last year, to a disbelieving crowd - was back and summed up Microsoft's aim to attract non-gamers to the console with the new features.

"With no controller to learn, anyone can jump in and play."

And there's plenty to play, with 15 titles to ship at launch - mostly outside genres that traditional players will appreciate. Among those not shown today was a Zumba fitness title and...wait for it...The Biggest Loser. To be honest, I really don't think I'd be all that happy if my TV called me fat.

The first title shown was Kinectimals - say that five times fast - which is a super-cute animal interaction game along the lines of Nintendogs.

Players - presumably young, female ones - can play with fluffy tiger (and other) cubs; scratch them behind the ears; play hide-and-seek, which sees the animals sniffing around the screen as if they're trying to get out; and play 30 activities like jump rope and fetch. Not for everyone, but sure to have appeal to some!

Kinect Sports was next up, which felt like Nintendo's equivalent titles, but doesn't require a WiiMote, or a Mote of any kind. It allowed crowd interaction - you can make the packed grandstand do a Mexican wave or just cheer you on for being so fantastic. The line-up offers boxing, volleyball, athletics, table tennis and more - and while running on the spot faster than others can might not get the average FPS fan excited, it is sure to appeal. I'd pick this to be a bundled title at some point in the near future.

Kinect Joy Ride is a new take on kart racers, with wild fantasy tracks that you tackle by holding an imagined steering wheel and making different movements to control your vehicle. To drift, stick your bum out left or right; to boost, pull the 'wheel' backwards and forwards; to spin, spin around.

Kinect Adventures does look like good fun, especially in multiplayer mode, which can be entered by simply jumping in front of the camera. One level involves standing on raft, leaning it to control through rapids, jumping for more speed and executing slick body poses to collect arrangements of pick-ups. It even takes photos at points through the game which can be auto-loaded to Facebook.

Rock Band maker Harmonix revealed the first dance game that doesn't need a button-mat or controller - in a great demo that saw talented pro-quality dancers busting moves before introducing a 'non-dancer' from the Harmonix team. Cue skinny white guy, the crowd goes silent. He begins matching moves from the pool of 600-odd in the game, he shows off 'Break it down' mode, which slows the music until the moves are right. The dance gets more difficult, skinny white guy sticks it - the crowd goes wild. Brilliant. Dance Central is one of those party games that will prove Singstar popular, and will ship with a variety of songs and genres, with downloadable tracks to start appearing after launch. Funky.

In what could be a solid body blow to WiiFit, Ubisoft showed Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, and despite my staunch resistance to the gym or any excessive exercise, I couldn't help but be intrigued. Players are scanned by Kinect, which takes and displays your measurements and places you - in strange orange form like the girl from the Berocca ads - into the gamespace. There are choices between gym activities, a personal trainer and fitness classes, including yoga and martial arts. This looked very good - Kinect sees how you're body is shaped and if it's right, points on your avatar show up green, if you're not getting it right the points are red until you've got the movement down pat. It seemed fairly low-impact and even finished up with a Zen class including Tai Chi movements.

The same footage from a Lucasarts Star Wars game shown at last night's gala Kinect launch was trotted out again. It bears a strong resemblance to Force Unleased and puts gamers in Jedi Knight mode, with natural swings of a virtual lightsaber used to fend off stormtroopers, and a simultaneous swing of both arms used to slide forward in the gamespace. Call me geek, but this is the one that excited me - and I daresay many other serious gamers in the audience - the most.

Microsoft Australia and New Zealand's entertainment boss David McLean was enthusiastic about the potential reach of Kinect - telling me after the event that he saw many non-gamers being attracted to the Xbox 360 not just by the games but by the new system's other features.

"We've leapfrogged the competition," he said, "and taken away the one main restriction to people jumping in playing - the controller."

He rightly pointed out that many are put off by what they perceive as a complex controller.

"We want one box to rule them all," he laughed, "to suit hardcore and casual gamers as well as social media enthusiasts and music and movie fans. The number one restriction has always been the controller."

He was quick to hit back at parallels drawn between games like Kinect Sports and Wii titles.

"Does it look Wii-like?" he asked, "Yes. But does it play like Wii? Not in the slightest. "

"It's not about moving a gizmo or pushing a button - this is a whole new experience."

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