In 2010, Microsoft launched its original "Kinect" camera peripheral for the Xbox 360 with a midnight event in Time Square. Hundreds lined up and chanted "You are the controller!" – Microsoft's marketing message for Kinect; the camera/microphone peripheral tracks the human body and recognizes voice commands, thus putting players directly into games.
The first version of Kinect went on to sell some 24 million units, one third of which were sold in the first 60 days it was available. To say it was popular is a dramatic understatement.
When Microsoft launched the Xbox One in 2013, it came with a new version of Kinect. It also made the Xbox One cost $100 more than the competition: PlayStation 4. And that's where Microsoft went wrong.
Despite a raucous consumer response to the first version of Kinect, the second iteration largely failed with consumers. It forced the cost of Xbox One to $500, whereas the first Kinect was an optional addition to the Xbox 360. The PlayStation 4 launched at the same time as the Xbox One, and it cost $100 less while offering much of the same content.
In short, Kinect has been a hindrance for Microsoft's Xbox division across the past two years: A reminder of previous success and recent missteps all at once.
Despite unbundling the Kinect from Xbox One at retail – thusly cutting the price of Xbox One to match PlayStation 4 – Microsoft's position on Kinect remains one of commitment. Xbox leader Phil Spencer echoed this sentiment in an interview with Business Insider on Monday in Los Angeles:
I see the engineering resources that we're putting in, to build out what Kinect's able to do, and I think that idea of voice response and motion response is critical to where gaming's going.
Beyond just the Xbox One, Spencer pointed out that Microsoft's "next big thing" – the HoloLens headset it unveiled in January 2015 – employs much of the same technology as Kinect to work its magic. For example, HoloLens needs to scan the world around you and understand surfaces in a three dimensional environment. It also accepts voice commands. That is exactly what Kinect's latest iteration was built to do.
"The importance of Kinect and understanding where a player is and allowing them to interact using their voice and gesture in an experience spans beyond just what console is about. A lot of what's in HoloLens is the same surface area that a Kinect developer would use," Spencer told us.
He also sees its use as a voice command machine to be of crucial importance: Xbox One owners with Kinect are largely using it as a means to command their console via voice, not with gestures (i.e. waving around your arms).
Personally, my Kinect is in a box in the closet after weeks of failed attempts at using it easily in my living room. But if the impressive technology in Kinect helps make the insane "mixed reality" of HoloLens better, then consider me on board. Whether or not Kinect itself will be "critical" to the future of gaming is unclear, but the tech inside Kinect seems a no-brainer for driving the future of interaction in gaming.
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