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Why Iím sceptical of Kinect
by Robert Green on 09/20/10 07:40:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Motion controllers are the future, we are told, and none seem more advanced than Microsoft’s Kinect system. The launch lineup, as revealed at this year’s E3 conference, has a definite casual look to it (which is a nice way of saying it looks easy and shallow), but MS has been quick to assure us that in time the ‘core gamers’ will embrace it.

While this is definitely possible, there are reasons to be sceptical of this, and I’m not just talking about not wanting to look silly while jumping in front of my TV or the physical demands of such games.

During this piece I’ll attempt to describe game genres which, on the surface, sound like they might be enhanced by Kinect, and to show how such ideas actually come with serious obstacles.

Presented here are some of the issues that a system like Kinect has, in no particular order:

Lag issues, both real and imagined.

Actual controller lag probably isn’t any worse than a normal gamepad, and if it is I doubt the difference is that large. But there is also the issue of perceived lag. Large physical actions take longer to perform than pressing a button does, hence need to be started further in advance.

This is a learning issue rather than a technical issue, but early footage of Kinect’s rafting game (where it seems to be possible to jump well after the raft has gone off a cliff) suggests that some developers have already had to compensate for this.

Out of all the problems though, this one is most likely to be overcome simply through the user practicing the game, but it bears noting that motion controls also have a sort of ‘uncanny valley’. The closer a control system resembles a real life activity, the more people experienced with that activity will notice what differences still exist.

Precision lacking - not a full skeleton yet, still some occlusion issues.

There are still a few things preventing the current setup from being a full skeleton tracking system – namely that the resolution is still insufficient to capture small details, like fingers. When so many of our games are based around small, accurate movements like pulling a trigger, shifting gears and hitting frets, a precise controller isn’t just preferable, it’s essential.

Some hands-on reports suggest that in a ten-pin bowling game for Kinect, players can only put spin on the ball by moving their entire arm on release, which is not how it’s done in real life. In situations like this, the game ends up being less intuitive than the existing Wii bowling game we’ve probably all played by now, at least for anyone who can actually spin a bowling ball properly.

In addition, the camera still works from a single, fixed perspective, so occluded body parts still have to be approximated. It’s not for nothing that professional motion capture rigs surround the actors with cameras.

Feedback - not just rumble, how to handle losing sync?

Gamers like force-feedback – just look at the reaction to Sony’s SixAxis controller not having any. The Kinect system has even less. At least with an analog stick/trigger you know when you’ve reached the end of the detectable range. But the far bigger issue is that when your ingame character collides with something, there’s nothing stopping you from continuing.

Let’s look at an example from a hypothetical 1 on 1 fighting game: I try a high roundhouse kick, hoping to catch my opponent in the head, and then continue spinning around to return to my starting position. Ingame though, my opponent blocks my leg, preventing my avatar from continuing to spin. At this point the game has to disconnect (diskinect?) the avatar skeleton from tracking me 1:1 and, somehow, decide how and when to start tracking again.

There’s no obvious solution to this, and I haven’t seen any of the games shown thus far even attempt it. Sure there’s a light-saber game, but in the footage shown at E3, nothing was able to block a swing. In fact, just as two light-sabers were about to collide, they stopped the video. Curious.

Reduced action count - sometimes you need to pull a trigger.

There’s a reason gamepads have gotten more complex over the years, going from the NES’ d-pad and 2 buttons to the dual-analog, 4 face button, 4 shoulder button designs we’re now familiar with – more buttons means more potential actions, which in turn allows for deeper gameplay systems.

While Kinect opens up a lot of new physical actions, the fact that most menu navigation seems to be done by hovering over an option and waiting shows the potential problem here – the inability to do specific, abstract things in a hurry. Kevin Butler is right – I don’t want to point at a screen and yell “bang”.

Nor do I wish to navigate menus of any real complexity (see almost every RPG ever) by hovering over every option for a couple of seconds, and nor do I wish to pause a game by.... how are they planning to handle that again?

Sometimes it can be easy to forget just how many gaming conventions are defined by abstract actions and complex interactions between the player and ingame items. Where Kinect makes some things more intuitive, it requires a whole new way of thinking about many things that are now second-nature to many of us.

Play-space issues - big "rock band" space required.

Probably not the biggest issue of all, but it’s worth noting that not everyone has the kind of space required to play Kinect games, especially multiplayer ones. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at a desk, which obscures the view of my legs from the TV, and I can only take two steps backwards before colliding with my bed.

Unless I can play everything standing on the bed, Kinect just isn’t an option with my current setup. I’m sure not everyone has such a play environment, but I can imagine quite a lot of people having to find places to store coffee tables every time they want to play a game.

Player inequalities - can all players perform actions as well as required or at all?

Let’s look at another issue with a 1 on 1 fighting game on Kinect. Apart from the collision issues already mentioned, ask yourself this: in such a game, could you kick at head-height? Depending on who is reading this, the answer could be ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe on a good day, after warming up’.

In such a game, were it actually using 1:1 tracking, some players cannot do things that others can do, or can’t do them as fast or reliably. While all games have issues of differing player skill levels, it’s rare to come across any situation where some gamers literally cannot perform some actions that other players are able to do.

Is it fair to disadvantage players because of their real-world limitations? I’ll leave that as an open question, but it’s certainly one that will crop up over and over. Looking at the current game selection, the easiest solution seems to be not to present the user with anything that’s physically challenging, but surely that just reduces the potential uses of a system that can do 1:1 tracking?

No accounting for momentum - I can't throw everything at the same speed.

This one is the opposite of the player inequalities problem. Because of the lack of anything physical in my hand while playing Kinect games, I could theoretically throw a bowling ball and a tennis ball at the same speed.

The only way to get around this is to not base the speed directly on my actual motion, but then you’ve lost the 1:1 connection that underlies the whole experience. To give a boxing scenario (surely one of the most obvious uses for Kinect), because the software is unlikely to be able to determine how much force I’m putting into a punch, there’s little incentive for me to put in any.

Much like in Wii Sports Boxing, I might be better off just throwing weak punches out as fast as I can. What seems like it could be a really immersive experience can easily turn into button mashing without the buttons.

Tiring interactions - can we play for an hour?

I’m not going to complain about the idea of having to stand up for an hour, though there seem to have been plenty of people quick to voice such an opinion. Not everyone wants to play a game for an entire evening, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting my gaming experiences to be long enough to actually feel some kind of progression.

Many of the games shown at E3 looked very short-burst focussed, which is fine for some segments of the market, but it also suggests a lack of depth. This in turn might cause some to question the value of full-priced software compared to the similarly short gameplay experiences you can get online or for smartphones that range from free to a few dollars.

Gamers already feel short-changed when their new game doesn’t last them more than 10 hours. How many of the games we’ve seen so far look like they’ll provide more than an hour or two of gameplay? And what if the mini-game collections for the Wii weren’t just trying to capitalise on the popularity of Wii Sports, but were actually a reflection of what motion controllers are best suited for?

Walking/running - what's more important in gaming?

I had to put this one in its own category. Can you think of a single action in games more common than walking or running? Looking at the games on my shelf, almost all except the driving games involve moving a character around. While the inability to pull a trigger makes developing a shooter a lot more challenging, this one surely makes multiple genres impossible in their current form.

In a boxing game, for example, the inability to move around would mean that I can’t control the distance between myself and the opponent, nor can I dodge, unless I follow every dodge by moving back to the starting position. Attempts to circle around my opponent would ultimately end up with me standing in my bathroom, having lost sight of the TV long ago.

Abstraction leads to gesture-based gameplay, which brings its own set of problems.

Some of the issues here can be potentially alleviated by changing from 1:1 tracking to a gesture-based system, one where the system doesn’t map your skeleton ingame, but instead looks for certain movements that the code recognises and then reproduces ingame based on pre-defined animations.

I could (and for that matter, did) write an entire article on the problems of gesture-based gameplay, but I’ll try and sum it up quickly here: Using gestures to control a game results in increased lag, decreased complexity, decreased precision, occasional missed or incorrect actions, etc. If you want to make a simpler, less precise, less reliable and less responsive game, then feel free to go down this route. Perhaps you’ve played a Wii game or two like that?


Before we go any further, it should be noted that there is already one game for the Kinect that could reasonably be called a serious game – Dance Central. Anyone who writes off a dancing game as for the casual market only has presumably never seen a DDR master at work.

For the purposes of this discussion, what matters is that the game seems to have a reasonably large amount of content, relies on players being coordinated instead of frenetic, and provides the potential for mastery through practice. So we should be careful not to say that hardcore games are not possible using such a system, and such games can present gameplay opportunities not possible elsewhere.

But let’s not kid ourselves around. The games you love now, if you’ve been playing games for decades like I have, will almost certainly not work, in almost any form, on the Kinect. All the issues covered above combine to make traditional games near impossible on Kinect.

This is a challenge for the game designers of the world. It may require more creativity than any other change that has happened in this market, including the change from 2D sprites to 3D polygons. But unless you resort to using a standard game controller in collaboration with Kinect, it will be very difficult to create truly deep experiences.

After all, how many activities can you think of that can be done within a living room, that don’t require touching anything in the real or virtual world? If you can answer that, perhaps you could have the beginnings of a great Kinect game design.

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Mark Steelman
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Good article, lots of good points here.

I have been hearing a lot of these kinds of analysis with regards to Kinect and I think there is a fundamental rut involved. IMO, if we want to go on making games that are just like old games but with a new controller... I doubt you could justify the R&D of the controller.

If you want to make a first person shooter, I recommend you use a traditional controller. If you want to make a traditional fighting game, I recommend you use a traditional controller. The fact is, these games evolved around the controllers we have now. The play like they do because of the strengths and limitations of the joystick button controller type.

I believe that gaming has largely become stale. Sega Saturn had Virtua Fighter 2, The next generation had the same game with better graphics, the next generation had the same game with better graphics and extra NPCs standing around watching... but at it's soul it's the same game with only minor variations.

Kinect is an opportunity for game designers to make ***new*** kinds of games. I believe that in the future, traditional thumb controllers will continue to exist but there will be great new games that you could never possibly do with a regular controller.

You mention Dance Central. Can you imagine how lame that game would be on a traditional controller? It would basically be a complex variant of wack-a-mole. It would be a fighting game thinly veiled as a dancing game.

With regards to people with greater and lesser ability. That reality already exists in gaming. I know people who first person shooters make them dizzy. I know people who just don't have good eye hand coordination. That problem isn't unique to motion control and thus is not a reason for motion control to fail.

I have also seen a lot of references to motion control and "Core" gamers. I think this deserves more definition than it is currently getting. I think the key problem with this term is it isn't taking into account the interface. A hard core gamer not only loves games and plays them a lot, he/she has a lot of experience with the existing types of games. Using a controller with 2 joysticks and 10 buttons isn't a big deal to them. They know the interface very well and thus you can make complex games for them. "Casual" gamers both play few games and don't have a great knowledge of the interface. All causual games use one joystick and maybe 2 buttons.

As I said above, I think motion control will exist parallel to joystick control, not in place of it. I think it is safe to say no one is a "hard core" motion control player. Anyone playing motion control is a "casual" motion control gamer. Thus, I think that it is wise in the initial titles for Kinect to make the interface as simple as possible. I see the launch titles for Kinect such as Kinect Adventures as a tutorial on the use of the interface. They are simple games that allow you to get used to that box on the floor you have to stand in and the relative range of your arms to the screen. I am certain that in the future, motion control games will ramp up to be as complex as joystick/button controllers are now.

Jonathan Jennings
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Excellent point Mark I feel the same way. i don't believe in a " controller-free future" most gamers are accustomed ot controls and as actions get more and more complex, expecting the average player to imitate a characters movements become less and less realistic.

In all honesty I feel like the worst thing Microsoft can do at this point with the kinect is not provide wide-spread demos. I was able to try the kinect and I found it much more appealing ( even if the price tag was repulsive) after experiencing it first hand. much like bungie had an odst wagon that toured the country I would expect microsoft to invest the same level of faith in the kinect. if this really is the future, it has to be played with and experienced by the core and casual alike .

I would be lying if i said I didn't have a fun time playing the kinect but that was a very niche experience...jumping and ducking on kinect adventures was not something I was looking forward to doing for an extended amount of time.

Mark also makes a good point...forcing the kinect to replace the controller in traditional games is an idiotic move at best. Instead having revolutionary technology like this hould be used for revolutionary games that offer new experiences. I know kinectimals receives a lot of flack but I think the concept is really cool granted you could say" hey you pikachu " tried the same thing but really this is the closest thing to an actual virtual pet we have seen yet. like any good gamer naturally I threw in random movements to make sure skittles was really tracking me and sure enough he was. when I jumped he jumped, when I told him to balance, he balanced.

I don't know I just see a lot of potential in the kinect but I feel like once again this is doomed to be yet another failed motion peripheral. how many have we seen by now ? The success or failure of these peripherals lie solely on sony and microsoft , how they market them, and how they promote them. there is lot of opposition to these items and it will remain until gamers see it' not just a gimmick.

Mike Baldus
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I think people like to push buttons. I think they just gain some deep rooted satisfaction from pushing a button and seeing their avatar dutifully carry out the expected routine. There may be some freudian explanation for this, but i think for the rest of time, people will find enjoyment in controlling stuff with buttons and levers.

I don't think motion control HAS to replace button pushing. Hopefully designers will start making games that play off it's strengths. Hopefully it will become more and more sophisticated. I think everybody wants a holodeck like experience someday. I suspect though that given holodeck level displays and motion control, people would probably simulate playing pac-man with a joystick.

Carlo Delallana
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Fun fact: you finger tips contain some of the densest nerve endings on our body.

The fun games will be he ones that are less about precision and rely more on gross body gestures or movements.

Imagine a game based on terra-forming, where your body controls a symphony of world building instruments. Pull those arms back then raise them as high and as fast as you can to build mountains. Sway your body side to side to control the strength of waves and the wind. Heck, imagine doing all of this to music!

That's the kind of experience that would be severely diminished if it was translated to traditional button-based controls.

Build from the ground-up, don't try ti fit a square peg in a round hole.

Jonathan Jennings
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that's actually an amazing Idea, something similar to "Doshin the Giant "but utilizing the kinects' technology. something like that certainly could be amazing and certainly appealing.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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I also don't believe in a controller free future. It should be parallel, and if the Kinect is here to stay, it needs more than casual games. Game designers need to figure out how to make hardcore games that are specifically on the Kinect. It'll require a lot of change in thought, yes but true innovation is the reward. That's why I hope that MS makes it possible for indies to develop XBox360 games for Kinect - they have a really strong potential source of great games there.

Until true motion centric hardcore games appear on the Kinect, the PlayStation Move is going to happily fill that space.

Nathan Tompkins
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Excellent points -- thanks for this thorough exploration. It seems the best arrangements for traditional games will have to be those where standard controller input is supplemented by the motion control for certain elements.

Mark Steelman
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Imagine a game that teaches you to play a guitar by not just listening to you play but watching your fingering. Not a fake guitar, a real guitar.

From what I hear about the resolution on Kinect, this is most likely not be possible on the 360 but I think it was worth mentioning as it might help take the lid off people's thinking.

With a system like Kinect, you no longer need a special peripheral, you want to play a racquetball game, get a racquetball racket. If you want to play a juggling game, get some beanbags.

Obviously, there are safety considerations, but just because the game is "controller free" doesn't mean you couldn't have something in your hands.

I can say that I would love the opportunity to design a game for Kinect. It's not about drinking the marketing "kool-aid", Kinect is essentially 3 cameras and a microphone with some level of motion tracking software. Kinect will be what the designers and engineers make of it.

I strongly agree with the above poster that Microsoft will miss a big opportunity if they don't support the indie developer with all the dev tools for Kinect. An indie designer is more likely to try something crazy than a large company.

Robert Green
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Certainly you're welcome to put something in your hands, but then the obvious question must be asked: what makes it better than the competition? In many cases you could go even further - if the Kinect can't determine what angle you're holding that racket at, where a wii remote or PS Move could - and ask if such a system can even match the competition.

As for juggling balls.... I'm intrigued, but I'm not sure how you make a game of it.

My point about interactions in the real world is not that they couldn't happen, it's that the system isn't checking for them. So you can hold a racket, but the game wont check its orientation. Or you can hold a plastic (or real, though I wouldn't recommend it) gun, but the game won't detect that you've pulled the trigger. Or you could hold a golf club (again, not recommended), but it wont use it to tell if you hooked the ball. Etc.

Steven Gregory
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Several of the points made in this blog post are factually incorrect and stems from a lack of familiarity with the Kinect sensor and it's games. For example the post complains about Kinect's supposed inability to calculate the force of a punch in a boxing game when Kinect Sports boxing already does this by looking at the players shoulder as a point of reference. The more your shoulder moves the harder the punch. Continuing on boxing Robert later says that you would be unable to move around your opponent in a boxing game. Anyone who is familiar with the Forza demo or TED talk Milo demo knows that movement in Kinect games is very easy. You can circle around a car in the Forza demo or move around the game world in Milo simply by leaning in the direction you want to move. In Forza you can get closer to or further from the car by stepping forward or stepping backwards. It works remarkably well. Go to Youtube and type in "Forza 4 Demo" and you will see a private demonstration given to Gamespot of how well movement in a Kinect game can work.

Another example is the article claims in shooting game you would have to point and yell bang when there is already a FPS paintball game in Deca Sports where you shoot simply by flicking your wrist up. It is a natural motion that we have all done since we were kids pretending to have a gun or when we teach our dogs to play dead. Many buttons and menu commands can be replaced by various player states or audio commands. For example instead of a dedicated pause button Kinect pauses a game simply by stepping out of the cameras view. In an RPG spells can be triggered by where your hands are located instead of choosing from a menu. In Harry Potter for Kinect your various spells change depend upon what you do with your hands. If you hold out both hands you trigger a shield spell, flick one hand and you shoot, do an underhand lob and you toss a potion grenade. The ideal setup for a game is not having to go into complex nested menus to select an attack. In a fast paced action game I agree this Kinect motion could get tiresome, but in a slow paced RPG where you take turns casting attacks this would work well.

Player inequality is a matter of game design. The avatar on screen is not limited to the size or dimensions of the player. Kinect games already will compensate for children by handicapping the difficulty in their advantage. There was already a brouhaha over how Kinect would distinguish a small person from a child.

I also disagree with the notion that a casual game means a game is "easy or shallow." You should not mistake ease of accessibility for a game that is easy to master. You can make games that are very hard and overly complex with Kinect too. (For example simultaneously singing and dancing like Michael Jackson does not strike me as a game concept that sounds easy to master at all.) I also don't see Kinect becoming the control method of choice for hardcore games, but that's not how it's being sold. The purpose of Kinect is to enable new types of games that would not be possible with a standard Xbox controller like Dance Central and Your Shape Fintess. The purpose financially is also to attract new types of consumers that for whatever reason are uncomfortable with standard game controllers.

Robert Green
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On the surface, you make a lot of good points. But dig a little deeper and I think you're glossing over the real points I was making. Measuring the movement of your shoulders isn't the same thing as determining force (though it's probably a better approximation than Wii Sports makes). Leaning to one side isn't the same as moving in 3D. Flicking your wrist isn't the same as shooting a gun. And the Harry Potter game just looked like a joke. It was a rail-wand-shooter, using gestures, and the demonstration of it looked like it didn't even work half the time.

And that's just my whole point. When people hear about this device that boasts that "you are the controller" and promises 1:1 control, our minds swirl with all the cool things we can imagine doing with it. But when it really comes down to it, almost none of these things would actually work, not without some kind of workaround or crude approximation that usually goes a long way towards defeating the entire purpose. I am not saying that such things CAN'T work, as you seem to have interpreted it, I am only saying that they can't work in such a way that actually represents that vision of intuitive 1:1 controls.

This extends into the issue of player inequality, that wasn't about the difference between children and adults at all, it's about whether you choose to represent exactly what the player is doing or not. Let me give another example: you're controlling a character who is running (somehow) towards a spiked pit, Tomb Raider style. You jump (in real life) hoping to clear it. But did you? If the game was actually measuring the size of your jump, that would depend on how high the player can jump, hence less able players might simply be unable to pass this obstacle. If the game isn't actually measuring the size of your jump, then once again, we have lost the 1:1 control and you're better off just half-heartedly jumping with no more effort than is necessary to trigger the pre-canned animation.

Also, I don't quite understand your last paragraph. You say that you disagree with the notion that a casual game is easy and shallow, then what you actually argue against is the equivalence of casual games with accessibility, which is not something I claimed at all, or at least didn't attempt to.

I hope this elaboration applies to some of the earlier comments too.

Max Haider
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Obviously, the game will never represent exactly what the player is doing, but there will be a correlation. You seem to think perfect correlation would be good. You also seem to accept near-zero, abstract correlation. Are you saying the fun in the middle of the two absolutely has to be worse than the fun at either end of the spectrum?

So, it easier has to be 1:1, or why bother? Is there no middle ground?

Robert Green
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I think there is a lot of middle ground, and something like the boxing game Steven mentioned is probably in it, just that it's a long way from being what people might imagine when they're presented with the idea of a boxing game you control with just your body. The little details can mean that ultimately, what appears to be a very realistic simulation is actually very simplified and abstracted.

I could probably write a lot more on this topic, but the simplified version of the way I see things is this: A game controller (or control interface) has 3 goals - intuitiveness, versatility and precision, such that people can easily use it, that it can be used for a large variety of games and that it is accurate enough to allow for some level of mastery, respectively. Something like a dual shock 3 is versatile (see how many game types it works with) and precise (button presses are sent quickly and reliably and analogue functions work accurately), but they're not intuitive, due to being almost completely abstract. By comparison, something like the drums for rock band are very intuitive, also very precise, but lacking in versatility.

On the surface, Kinect might appear to be the perfect controller, in possessing all three ideals. But if you have to do things like leaning to move around, it might not actually be that intuitive. If you can't trigger abstract actions or move around freely, it might not be very versatile. And if games are only approximating what you're doing, like only checking to see if you've jumped, but not how high, then it might not be very precise either.

So no, I'm not saying there is no middle ground, or that there is no point or no fun to be had there, just that it may end up being a middle ground between the ideal and the worst possible control interface.

Giro Maioriello
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Well I've had the opportunity to look at a Kinect game, so I know exactly how they could handle pausing the game - it was quite good! ;)

With regards to movement,; I could control movement by simply leaning in the desired direction, including backwards and forwards and all done whilst seated.

Whilst I think that the Kinect has some significant limitations and as others have noted won't replace the conventional controller, I'm sure that someone will come up with some ingenious uses for it.

Marcus Miller
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Personally, I think just Kinect has another controller interface. It is not like dance pads or guitar controllers replace game pads. Kinects, dance pads, guitar controllers, fishing controllers are all just difference game interfaces.

Juan Manuel Serruya
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Totally agree with Marcus

Michael Tiambeng
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What an excellent article!

Most of my friends are ardent MS supporters and believe that the Move is just WiiHD. I'm not here to start up that argument, but this article has a lot of points that I believe are relevant (short burst gaming, limited game types, etc.). I bring up these points when my friends and I debate about systems and the up-and-coming motion controllers. Normally, I end up accused of being a fanboy, but I feel that as the motion controllers become a staple in console gaming, ease of use and practicality have to mix well and fit within all genres in order for a system to become successful in this day and age.

I am certain that there is a time and place for the technology behind Kinect, but I just don't think (as a Core Gamer) that this is the right time for it to take off. Microsoft will be able to do some amazing things with the Kinect and its supporting technology, however, the appeasement of core gamers I don't see as one of them.

Justin White
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Most gamers are missing the purpose and goal of kinect. Microsoft is trying to expand to the more casaul crowd like the wii lemmings. You will not be abandoned, they are just trying to increase the variety of people they sell too. With the more casual crowd they could actually make more money since the hardcore gamer is still the minority. It's simple they sell to more people, they make more money, and can reduce overhead cost of all products in the process.

Games and graphics have advanced at a lighting pace but the number of actual human to console imputs haven't. Lets see how you interact with your console has changed over the years.

1. You got more buttons on your controller (Ohhh my!)

2. Wireless controlersals

3. The headset (finally team communication was possible, but never used enough)

4. Voice recognition (not many games but there)

5. Motion input - finally you console will be able to react to conditions in the real world, like you

With a significant new type of input the possibilities have increased dramatically, although like all new technologies, no one is sure of what they all are yet. It will have to evolve through several technical barriers but this be an actual rememberable moment in game evolution.