Microsoft’s Kinect system was designed simply to be a way for the Xbox 360 games console to compete with the Nintendo Wii for a family audience. But one year on it is among the fastest selling consumer gadgets ever as well as being adapted for a wide range of non-gaming uses.
Kinect, originally known as Project Natal, came about after Nintendo revolutionized the gaming industry with its Wii motion control system that brought a whole new meaning to “pick up and play.” Suddenly TV news reports on gaming were no longer of stereotypical greasy-haired teen loners mastering intricate control systems: instead we had families playing together and even nursing home boxing contests.
Microsoft wasn’t alone in wanting to target the Wii-market: Sony came up with its own system for the PlayStation 3, known as Move, with the selling point being more accurate controllers that could be used in traditional gaming. Microsoft didn’t try to create a better controller however: instead it decided that “you are the controller” with a hands-free gaming experience.
The Kinect system is a single horizontal bar that contains a wealth of technological features. As well as a full-scale video camera and a microphone with voice recognition technology, there’s also an infrared projector that is able to detect 3D images and thus track the player’s movements.
The system proved a major hit with players and Microsoft’s investors alike. Within five months of its debut, Kinect had sold 10 million units and was officially recognised by Guinness World Records as the “fastest-selling consumer electronics device” in history, pipping even the iPad and iPhone. Revenue in Microsoft’s gaming and gadgets division rose by 60 percent year-on-year, which was enough to boost the company’s overall takings despite a drop in PC sales and thus potential Windows customers.
Kinect hasn’t been without its controversies though. Within weeks of its release enthusiasts were adapting the technology to work with computers, coming up with uses as diverse as motion-controlled Internet surfing to even Kinect-powered banking. At first Microsoft appeared unhappy with the amateur adaptations, citing licensing restrictions and threatening to involve police. Later it decided to go with the flow and made the technology behind the Kinect officially available for non-commercial adaptation.
In another incident, a Microsoft executive appeared to suggest the company might be able to offer advertisers the opportunity to deliver targeted ads based on what the camera could see of the players, specifically giving the example of showing ads to viewers wearing a particular American football shirt. Microsoft later denied it used any of the data collected by Kinect for advertising targeting purposes.
Despite the controversies, the Kinect system remains a confirmed success. It remains far behind the estimated 88 million sales of the Wii, but has truly wiped the floor with the PlayStation Move. It appears to have pulled off the tricky task of attracting new “casual” gamers with interactive sports and dance games while also appealing to the hardcore Xbox audience. One year on there are more than 100 Kinect titles either available now or scheduled for release, and if Kinect achieves nothing else, it will always be remembered for making it possible to play Hole in the Wall in your own living room!