Kinect's dead, no matter what Phil says

Dropping it from the Xbox One was a good idea, but where's the new USP?

Breaking up is hard to do, as the Carpenters famously crooned; right now, Microsoft is discovering, not for the first time this generation, that dumping your old ideas is just as tough as dumping your clingy ex. It may be the right thing to do, but it's a fraught process and one that it's tough to emerge from without attracting plenty of ire along the way.

Kinect 2.0 and Xbox One were, after all, meant to be married for life. The expensive sensor was bundled with the console from day one. Its functionality was deeply ingrained in the design of the system's user interface, and a whole 10% of GPU resources were permanently devoted to it. Originally, Xbox One wasn't even capable of booting up without a Kinect plugged in; it was an intrinsic and inseparable part of the console. In sickness and health, till death do they part.

Well, like so many relationships and marriages, it turned out that there were plenty of good reasons to break up long before the Grim Reaper raised a bony hand. Kinect has been at the root of many of Microsoft's woes with Xbox One. It raised the price of the system, making the console $100 more expensive than the more technically impressive and well-liked PS4. It seemed to imply that Xbox One was a console aimed at casual gamers (with whom motion controls are now, fairly or unfairly, strongly associated) at the expense of the core gamers who made Xbox 360 successful. Moreover, in an age of actually rather justifiable paranoia about privacy, a camera in your living room that never turned off made plenty of people downright uncomfortable.

"Moreover, in an age of actually rather justifiable paranoia about privacy, a camera in your living room that never turned off made plenty of people downright uncomfortable"

Worst of all, up to this point, Kinect just hasn't justified its own existence. There aren't any great games on the Xbox One that use Kinect extensively; there's simply nothing there to make people think, "wow, this is something you couldn't do on PS4 because it doesn't have Kinect". After 12 months of doggedly repeating the party line that Kinect was a great unique selling point for Xbox One, Microsoft's decision to unbundle the peripheral from the console is a tacit admission that it wasn't a selling point at all. Innovative hardware is meaningless if nobody builds must-have games to exploit the functionality.

It's no coincidence, I think, that the decision to bring Kinect around the back of the woodshed and put a bullet in it was announced shortly after Phil Spencer took over Xbox. Spencer understands games in a way that his immediate predecessors did not; he would have an innate understanding of the fact that games sell consoles, and untapped potential in hardware is not exciting to consumers, it's simply wasteful. An expensive peripheral that doesn't drive great software isn't a USP, it's a ball and chain around the ankle of the console. It had to go.

It's a little disingenuous, then, to see Spencer trying to claim that everything is fine in the land of Kinect. Speaking to GamesIndustry International at E3, he simultaneously acknowledged that Kinect was dragging the console down (noting that Kinect couldn't succeed if Xbox One itself failed, which is a tacit admission that bundling Kinect with the console was risking a huge failure) while also claiming that plenty of consumers will buy the Kinect peripheral separately, and it'll continue to be a big part of the Xbox One offering.

"Kinect wasn't supported strongly by developers even when it was bundled with every Xbox One"

Not an unexpected claim, of course; but also patently not a true one. Kinect wasn't supported strongly by developers even when it was bundled with every Xbox One. Now that it's been dropped to the status of "expensive peripheral with no good games", developer support will entirely dry up. Just like its predecessor on the Xbox 360, Xbox One Kinect is going to be relegated to lip-service support ("jump around to avoid enemy attacks, or just press B... Huh, you pressed B? Not up for jumping around? Surprising...") and a handful of dancing or exercise titles. Not that there's anything wrong with dancing or exercise titles, but you don't get platform-defining tech from them; if you did, the world would have changed a hell of a lot more when Dance Dance Revolution mats came out for the PS1.

I don't want to give Microsoft too much of a hard time for its decision with Kinect, not least because it's the right decision. It gives them price parity with Sony and might help to fix some of the perception problems Xbox One faces. On the other hand, while Kinect was a failed USP - and thus deserved to be ditched - it was at least an attempt at a USP. With the right software and services backing it up, it could have given the Xbox One an offer different enough from Sony's to be very interesting indeed - but building that software would have taken time, effort and attention. Spencer, with full visibility of the firm's software pipeline, chose instead to amputate the limb and cauterise the wound. Painful, but mercifully quick; definitely a vote of no confidence in whatever Kinect software is still under development; possibly a move that will make Xbox One walk with a limp for the rest of its life.

"I don't want to give Microsoft too much of a hard time for its decision with Kinect, not least because it's the right decision"

What I hope the Xbox team recognises is that ditching Kinect isn't enough - and hollow platitudes about how important the peripheral remains to the company's strategy certainly aren't enough either. What Xbox One needs is something to replace Kinect, a new USP; one that isn't rubbish, this time. That USP could just be software, with Microsoft doubling down on its internal studios and building its relationships with third-parties to produce genuine exclusives (as opposed to timed-release DLC exclusives, which just look desperate and annoying no matter which platform is involved in them). It could be services, as the company attempts to leapfrog Sony and regain the lead Xbox Live once had over PSN's services; what form that might take is tough to say, but there's certainly still headway to be made in the provision of online services, and right now Microsoft lags behind, which makes this into an area brimming with opportunity. Most likely, a combination of both great games and great new services will be needed to make Xbox One attractive to consumers; to give it the USP that Kinect was supposed to be, but never was.

There's an interesting comparison, of course, to be made with Nintendo's difficulties with Wii U. I observed some time ago that both Microsoft and Nintendo had made the same basic error with their new consoles - they launched with expensive peripherals that boosted the cost of the console but had yet to show any dividends in terms of unique, must-have software. In Microsoft's case, Kinect has now been ditched; losing the millstone, but with no sign yet of a new USP to replace it. Nintendo, however, has taken quite the opposite approach. Gamepad remains firmly bundled with the Wii U, and while software for the Gamepad still doesn't impress, there's obviously potential there; the short, cryptic videos of Miyamoto Shigeru working up gameplay demos using the pad which was shown at the end of Nintendo's E3 broadcast was a statement of intent. Rather than ditching its white elephant, Nintendo is trying to figure out how to put it to work.

So, over the next year, we're going to get to see how two diametrically opposed solutions to the same problem work out. Microsoft, making the latest of several U-turns, has gone back to square one and now needs to find a new selling point for the Xbox One. Nintendo has doubled down on the Gamepad, and needs to convince consumers of the worth of its innovation - not to mention the worth of the Wii U overall. Different challenges with similar requirements; they both need great games to prove their point. The consumer wins, in this situation, but it will be interesting to see which company, if either, can emerge victorious from these trials.

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Latest comments (27)

Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer 7 years ago
If the unbundling didn't kill it, giving devs the choice of more power /or/ using Kinect surely did.

I think the major difference between Kinect and Wii U Gamepad at this point is that the Gamepad demonstrably works. I wouldn't say anyone has shown that it is really compelling in a game (though it beats Wiimote as an imput), but at least if you touch the screen it registers the touch. The buttons are rock solid and reliable. Okay, and Gamepad has Miyamoto.

Kinect, on the other hand, only works 95-99% of the time. That's good enough for watching TV, or navigating a horribly designed dashboard, but not nearly good enough for a game, and I think Phil has rightly given up on tying the entire fate of the console to someone eventually figuring out how to make Kinect reliably recognize what you're doing. I think that's the key. It's been four years and nobody has figured out how to make Kinect register movements reliably or tell who's talking. It's time to consider that maybe that will never happen.

And of course he's got to say those disingenuous things, because if he actually says 'Yeah, Kinect was a dead end,' well, that's a self-fulfilling prophecy - so he keeps holding out for the long shot.

Like you, I like it, because a race with several strong competitors is much better for consumers than a runaway favorite. We don't need PS3 launch again.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Nobody needs one million apps on their phone. No two cell phones have the same apps installed. But the approach itself has spread like wildfire from cell phones to tables and into Smart TVs. Still, consoles have a very reserved, very hand picked approach to apps so far. The next mass market phenomenon will not be made by the one pretending to know which pre-selected hard and software the customer wants, but by the one going all out app-store on us.

Compared to Apple's and Google's app stores, PNS and XBL are barren wastelands. The USP that really matters is not a gimmick, it's the idea that a platform is more open than consoles used to be and let other developers worry about software. Stop marketing an allegedly grand idea and have everybody their own USP.
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on paper the Kinect idea is great, its just that in terms of reliability and being part of the natural global use, its too advanced for its time. When we can telegraph our every emotions and thoughts into manifesting into a action, then the kinect (and electro kinesis/telekensis) is the right moment for us to deploy such a technology into our everyday lives...unfortunately such technological magic has to go back to the future
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Show all comments (27)
Tommy Thompson Lecturer in BSc (Hons) Computer Games Programming., University of Derby7 years ago
The question on my mind is what innovation is actually evident in the sector right now? The Kinect would never grab mass appeal due not only to its cost but the disconnect between action and interpretation within the game: at least the Wiimote and PS Move (which seems pretty dead) provided not only a physical interface, but haptic feedback. While Nintendo have committed to proving the WiiU gamepad is not a lost cause - and I hope they succeed - what else is *really* happening? We're nearly a year into this generation and the majority of selling points in games appear to be existing tropes - online co-operative play, asynchronous gameplay etc. - that now benefit from more horsepower. Even the proposed benefits of the cloud do not seem evident beyond reproductions of Gaikai/On-Live. The Oculus RIft, while cool, does not look like a game changer to me either.
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haptic feedback seems to be what folks are used to, perhaps when augmentation becomes more of the perceived norm....
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Nick Parker Consultant 7 years ago
I always perceived Kinect as a long term live Beta play; one that would iteratively improve until fast and precise gesture control would be achieved. It's a shame Microsoft did not deploy Kinect in a more dedicated and targeted way rather than pushing for mass market usage. It (or something similar) may return and I hope it does as natural human gestures to control on screen navigation and play should come of age eventually.
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John Cook Senior Partner, Bad Management7 years ago
Nice piece, as usual, Rob.
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Nic Wechter Senior Designer, Black Tusk (MGS Vancouver)7 years ago
I don't agree with this, Kinect has a lot of potential everyone agrees. Once somebody manages to transform that potential to incredible experiences then I think it will walk off the shelves. Easier said than done of course.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd7 years ago
Kinect has had "a lot of potential" for five years now, and still no good games.
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Jordan Lund Columnist 7 years ago
Here's the thing I find fascinating... The Sega CD is widely considered to be a failure and yet despite that their Wikipedia lists 237 games released for the platform.

How many Kinect exclusive titles are there for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One? The wiki lists 96 on the 360 and 1 or 2 on the Xbox One, so less than half of what the Sega CD had and that is considered to be a failure.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jordan Lund on 27th June 2014 6:26pm

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Terry Greer Game designer/ consultant 7 years ago
Kinect was always an arse to design for and limited the type of games you could create (well it didi if you insisted it was a kinect game rather than just kinect enhanced).

Yes some experiences and games could be designed to work really well with it (such as Blitz Puss in Boots), but in general it put too much strain on the game design and it was pushed to hard.
I can remember often having to put forward ideas for kinect control for games when really the game didn't benefit from it, but the publishers wanted it.
Having it as part of a system as standard was actually a good idea, but integrating it so fully into the system was a bad one. The other bad decision was for it not have its own dedicated processing/memory and have to compromise the speed of the main system. I thought they'd learnt from the original kinect not to do that.
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Nick Wofford Hobbyist 7 years ago
Kinect's future really just depends on whatever MS does with VR. It would be a great way to enhance precision of a headset; the console gets data from both the headset and the camera. MS could just lie and say that the headset couldn't be possible without Kinect, and they'd be set.

The Kinect has always been impressive tech, but like Nick said (don't I look schizophrenic), the Kinect should've been released like the OR. Slowly, and with MS mitigating expectations. Instead, they pushed it too hard, which meant it had to work 100% of the time to impress. MS's VR device could give it life, but that's a wait-and-see from me.
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Rogier Voet IT Consultant 7 years ago
Just like so many peripherals - it was not good enough. Yes I can say Xbox Off (with a terrible American Accent otherwise it does not understand it. I can also use the button on my controller to switch it off. If you make an peripheral, it should be faster, easier and offer something great that other hardware cannot deliver. Kinect (and also the Wii gamepad) never delivered.
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Asif A. Khan, CPA Financial Reporter 7 years ago
I love the use of Johnny 5 in this article.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 7 years ago
As of right now kinect really is dead outside of voice commands for tv and the dashboard. The Harmonix duo of games are the only significant games in the short term that will even utilize it. I still think Microsoft made the wrong decision in removing kinect. Dropping the price to $399 to match the PS4 price point was genius but getting rid of kinect was the wrong move in my opinion.

A $399 XBO with kinect was a win-win for everyone. It was $100 cheaper for consumers(win), every system would still have kinect for when developers wanted to make games/apps for it(win) and if people didn't want to use kinect they could always turn it off/unplug it and still use their $399 XBO as usual, minus the voice commands(win).

The way it stands now I see no other scenario than the Xbox One market being splintered between those that have kinect and those that don't have it, just like last gen. Maybe Microsoft has some grand scheme up their sleeves but I agree with Rob--kinect is pretty much dead in the water.
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant 7 years ago
Microsoft just didn't see enough of a sales benefit now or in the near future from Kinect. Sure, some day a game might come along that makes it a must-have peripheral, but that's not worth giving up substantial sales now.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
I'm confused here (but not surprised). When Kinect came out for the 360, we were told time and again that better games were coming and developers were psyched about getting the most out of the technology. I recall even reading about indie hacking of the device happening that unlocked more potential. There were some fun Kinect-only games, but there were also games that showed the tech needed work.

Enter Kinect 2.0 and it was SUPPOSED to be the main reason behind the Xbox One experience outside the games. I'd have thought that developers learning the old model would have made the transition to the new model, taking what was learned and fixing the stuff that didn't work while making better experiences.

So what went wrong here other than Microsoft failing to prove Kinect was all they claimed it was? What happened to those games that were supposed to show the importance of the tech? Were gamers just too annoyed by it all, rejecting the device as unnecessary or was it never really something that was going to be adopted by people who just wanted more traditional means of playing games?

And what does this mean for the future of other tech people are trumpeting as the next big thing? Will jaded gamers and other folks simply pass those by as "useless" because they add another layer of immersion that actually takes away straightforward direct control methods and adds another layer or three of cost and setup time to what they feel should be a "press start and go" deal?

A lot of comments I see about some new tech on boards notes that gamers don't want to "flail about" and look silly playing a game they used to just sit down with and start nailing in seconds or minutes. I see that as a failure to want to try something new (even if it's a familiar genre) or relearn skills burned into memory thanks to repetition. However, there's also the point that entertainment needs to be entertaining at the end of the day, not a case of "back to school" mentality or "you'll get it at some point" eventuality. Eh, like learning new things, but in the case of some game genres, I try them and let the experts have their fun because I'm just not interested after a week of going through a manual and replaying tutorials.

I guess we'll see. I'm going to go through a lot of popcorn watching all this sort itself out, that's for sure...
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game7 years ago
The fact that they original kinects sold so well shows that people weren't scared to try something new. The fact that very few of the promised core games surfaced or were any good meant people felt burnt. Steel Battillions was a mess, Ryse ended up being on a different console and not Kinect only, Star Wars really wasn't the game we were initially promised, Kate and Milo may or may not have been a fraud, that Sega Horror didn't work, and there were a few ok on rails shooters, a niche genre, and the kinect didn't help them rival Time Crisis.

Meanwhile, the non core games were often really painful to navigate the menus. Watching the wife and her friend try to start a game of Zumba was ridiculous, with the struggling to register second players and not really doing what it was told.

People did try something new, it cost 120, wasn't very good, and didn't want to try it again. Meanwhile, for a year or so after Kinect was launched, MS put a large part of their development resources into kinect shovelware whilst closing down anything disc based else that wasn't Halo or Forza, whilst Sony was backing last of us, a game we wanted far more than Kinect star wars.
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Neow Shau Jin Studying Bachelor in Computer Science, Universiti Sains Malaysia7 years ago
@Nick, well exactly how Sony is planning to do with their VR.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Nobody questions how well Kinect was marketed and its sales. But none of the games had any staying power or lasting transformative effect on gaming. This is why Kinect will end up in the same part of our collective memory than some weird 80ies hairstyle. Much like Nintendo with their novelty gamepad controller, Microsoft bought into their own hype and are now paying the price.
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Julian Toseland games podcaster/website 7 years ago
Having been a victim of both Kinect's, and in someway being sold on the idea the second time, My problems lie with the awful accuracy and constant screaming at the TV on the 360, and still on the Xbox one, we were all led to believe the second coming with Kinect 2.0.
However yet again, its failed, and yes I do mean failed, given the price, and promises we are still right back were we started, Now dropped by MS, and yet again, bottom line, it simply does not work 100%, and that for me has and always will be its stumbling block.
I applaud them for trying, But I don't applaud them for using gamers as guinea pigs the second time round, and paying for the privilege.
The massive problem they had, and IMO will always have, is the just to large amount of Languages and dialects around the world, something I think is just to difficult to overcome, here in the UK, such diversities in dialects is very large given the size of the country, so put that on a worldwide scale, to me was something they could never be overcome.

But then the killer for me in the end, is "GAMES", somewhere in all this mess, is an actual "games console", you know to play games on, Kinect has has 2 in nearly 12 months, Laughable given the press conferences, and for me, the final nail, was watching the poor guy from Harmonix on stage at E3, he ,may as well have just said screw it, and walked off, that for me sealed the fate, if it hadn't been done already.

For me, just kill it, change the UI, quickly, and get back to what we all want as gamers...GAMES, before you are left way behind, and tbh that time is fast approaching unless big changes are coming, and fast, my xbox one, has not played a game fully, since Titanfall, whats worse, I actually have no idea what I will be playing next on the thing.
But Both consoles are suffering for me, through being released 12 months to early....but hey that's another story.
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Nick Wofford Hobbyist 7 years ago
I'm not sure I'm understanding your comment. Could you explain your reply for the slow learners like me? haha
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I could have told them Kinect was going to be DOA before they made it. Prime example of people who do not know a thing about games getting their way and the result is a disaster. Kinect was designed for its own sake and then they tried to make games for it. I bet there were people telling them along the way that it was a crappy idea but the ones who made the decisions didn't listen.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 7 years ago
Double Fine's Kinect Party is my kids' favourite console game, and I think that the Kinect is useful for this kind of game / experience. However, the combination of Kinect with a pricey console is a bad one: hardcore gamers don't want the options Kinect offers, and those interested in what Kinect provides don't want to pay a lot for hardcore gaming hardware.
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if there was a must have GAME kinect killer in the works great. otherwise, I am afraid the time to capitalise on its USP has come and gone for now. its unfortunately dead in the water
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
I said it before and I'll say it again

Any person who thinks Kinect's inclusion was about games is not looking at the big picture.

Kinect was about TV,, home automation,, medical,video calling, everything BUT games

Unfortunately, none of that stuff I'd ready yet. The HDMI input was always the feature intended to be chucked in short order, as TV apps finally because full featured and the X1 became your cable mother box

It's obvious those plans are now going to change, because Microsoft refuses to just eat the $60ish the thing now costs to make. At this point, they need to strip the Kinect's mic array, and give one to anyone who buys a core system. Their audio processing is light years ahead of Sony, but they need to keep that advantage with a Kinect mini. Microsoft also knows that idiots buy on hard drive space, and that they will buy a premium system even though an additional hard drive is cheaper (expect a new Kinect bundle with a TB HD soon enough). The cost of those extra 500Gb Is $5-10, and people will pay the $200 for that.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.7 years ago
When Microsoft made the SDK freely available for the Kinect 1.0 everyone, including themselves, were amazed by the uses devs found for it.
I doubt many are still willing to pay for the Kinect 2 SDK so why not now make that available for free too?
It is sure to produce another stream of news stories that will reflect well on Microsoft .
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