Xbox, Off? A Commentary on the Xbox One's Kinect

May 28, 2014
xbox one without kinect

Last week, as some of you know, Microsoft dropped the price of the Xbox One down to $399. There are three questions here that really tell the whole story:

1:Why did they do it? To match the price of the PS4 that, by most reports, seems to be flying off the shelves.2:How did they do it? They removed the Kinect camera, which presumably means they will eventually issue a patch to allow all Xbox One users to have the system operate without the device connected.3:Most importantly, what does this mean for the future of the system? That's... a bit more complicated.First things first, let's call this what it is; a move that was planned by Microsoft from the beginning. Sure, they probably didn't want to do this so early in the system's life span, but as soon as they started back peddling on the original vision for the Xbox One, the one they pitched at E3 last year that most people hated, you could see they envisioned a future without the Kinect. They also knew the gamble they had been taking; by selling for $100 over the cost of the PS4, they had to convince users that the additional money being spent translated directly into value.

This was always going to be a hard sell, a higher cost of entry for what would ostensibly be the same games, but there were other factors working against Microsoft as well. The fact that paid streaming services like Hulu and Netflix were behind the Xbox Live pay wall. The list of games that were on both platforms with better resolutions on the PS4 as compared to their Xbox One counterparts. The concern some users had that Microsoft would eventually reinstate the DRM that seemed so draconian a year ago. But even with all of these, the simple fact remains that the Kinect is a cool device with tons of promise that hasn't fulfilled any of it's potential.

The obvious argument, and one I agree with is likely, is that the original Xbox 360 Kinect was a reactionary move to the Nintendo Wii. Specifically, the unexpected and shocking popularity of the "motion" controls of Nintendo's home console caused a panic at Microsoft to get something similar onto their own system as soon as possible. Never mind that Nintendo had been playing with this concept since its days as an add on for the GameCube, Microsoft decided to bet and bet big on the motion and voice control technology that powered the original sensor.

Did it work? That's debatable. The tech was somewhat there, but given that it was just a camera, there was a near total lack of feedback for developers to work with, and a infinite number of actions and movements for the sensor to interpret. Games that once seemed like a dream came out flat, boring and almost unplayable (Kinect Star Wars or Dragonball Z: Kinect, anyone?). The camera was fine for general navigation, and it could recognize voice commands... but anyone who thought it was a true replacement for the controller was fooling themselves. That was okay though, because what they were really telling us was "This is just the first step. Imagine what the future will bring!" So, we waited.

Now that Kinect for the Xbox One has been given every opportunity to succeed (by being bundled with the system, Microsoft could force every developer to incorporate it somehow), it's time to point out that one of two things seem to be true: Either the sensor itself is really cool stuff that's just being horribly misapplied to gaming, or the developers (including Microsoft) have absolutely no idea how to take advantage of it. Why do I say this? Check the review scores of any Kinect motion controlled game. The poor quality of these games go beyond usual "launch period rush" releases. They don't control well, they aren't fun, and in some cases they flat out are just broken. Conversely, the Kinect sensor itself has drawn rave reviews from the science and medical communities, one such example linked below. There's obviously some potential here for some really cool stuff, but maybe gaming just isn't what this thing should be used for.


When it comes to its use as a controller replacement, this may be a reality that Microsoft doesn't want to face

Where does this leave Microsoft and the Kinect? Microsoft itself will be fine. If this move doesn't convince people to buy the Xbox One, they'll try something else. Or, like with the original Xbox, they'll just keep selling it and taking a loss. It's still worthwhile to them to be in the space, and fighting for mind share and market share; They'll still get great third party titles and some killer first party exclusives, so there will still be plenty of people who will buy the system.

This doesn't address the Kinect though, or the fact that developers are now stuck with choosing one of three paths. They can continue developing their games with the Kinect as a requirement, which is probably what you'll see for the first few months after this new bundle releases. Developers can make Kinect modes or features optional, which I'm sure Microsoft will encourage as it feeds into the idea that the Kinect adds value to the system. Or developers can ignore it entirely, with their justification being that they don't know who will and won't have it. I think the last option is one Microsoft will try hard to avoid, but it's also the one I think is most likely to happen.

Personally, I wasn't planning to buy an Xbox before, and that hasn't changed. I don't see this move having any of the impact Microsoft was hoping to have; it's nothing other than a BLATENT catch up move. All this does is remove some of the privacy concerns people had about the Kinect and lets them compete dollar for dollar with the PS4. This price drop is certainly worth noting, but its far from noteworthy.


For one example of the Kinect's utility outside of the gaming world, check out this link. The Kinect isn't a lost cause, just perhaps a misapplied one.

Ben Mayer