Tag Archives: kinect

Windows Phone, Windows 8, and Metro Metro Metro feature in Microsoft’s last keynote at CES

I watched Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer give the last in a long series of Microsoft keynotes at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.


There were three themes: Windows Phone, Windows 8, and Xbox with Kinect. It was a disappointing keynote though, mainly because of the lack of new news. Most of the Windows Phone presentation could have been from last year, except that we now have Nokia involvement which has resulted in stronger devices and marketing. What we have is in effect a re-launch necessitated by the failure of the initial launch; but the presentation lacked the pizzazz that it needed to convince sceptics to take another look. That said, I have enjoyed using Nokia’s Lumia 800 and still believe the platform has potential; but Microsoft could have made more of this opportunity. A failed voice demo did nothing other than remind us that voice control in Windows Phone is no Apple Siri.


What about Windows 8? Windows Chief Marketing Officer Tami Reller gave a presentation, and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of new stuff since the preview at last year’s BUILD conference. There was not much though, and Reller was using the same Samsung tablet as given to BUILD delegates. We did get a view of the forthcoming Windows Store that I had not seen before:


Reller mainly showed the Metro interface, in line with a general focus on Metro also emphasised by Ballmer. She talked about ARM and said that Metro apps will run on both Intel and ARM editions of Windows 8; notably she did not say the same thing about desktop apps, which implies once again that Microsoft intends to downplay the desktop side in the ARM release.

Reller also emphasised that Windows 8 Metro works well on small screens, as if to remind us that it will inevitably come to Windows Phone in time.

Windows 8 looks like a decent tablet OS, but the obvious questions are why users will want this when they already have iOS and Android, and why Microsoft is changing direction so dramatically in this release of Windows? The CES keynote was a great opportunity to convince the world of the merits of its new strategy, but instead it felt more as if Microsoft was ducking these issues.

Xbox and Kinect followed, and proved firmer ground for the company, partly because these products are already successful. There was a voice control demo for Xbox which worked perfectly, in contrast to the Windows Phone effort. We also heard about Microsoft’s new alliance with News Corporation, which will bring media including Fox News and the Wall Street Journal to the console. We also saw the best demo of the day, a Sesame Street interactive Kinect game played with genuine enthusiasm by an actual child.

Microsoft unveiled Kinect for Windows, to be released on 1st February, except that there was not much to say about it. Amazon.com has the product available for pre-order, and there was more to be learned there.


The new product  retails at $249.99, compared to $149 for the Xbox version, but seems little different. Here is what the description says:

This Kinect Sensor for Windows has a shortened USB cable to ensure reliability across a broad range of computers and includes a small dongle to improve coexistence with other USB peripherals. The new firmware enables the depth camera to see objects as close as 50 centimeters in front of the device without losing accuracy or precision, with graceful degradation down to 40 centimeters. “Near Mode” will enable a whole new class of “close up” applications, beyond the living room scenarios for Kinect for Xbox 360.

I imagine hackers are already wondering if they can get the new firmware onto the Xbox edition and use that instead. Kinect for Windows does not come with any software.

What is the use of it? That is an open question. Potentially it could be an interesting alternative to a mouse or touch screen, face recognition could be used for personalisation, and maybe there will be some compelling applications. If so, none were shown at CES.

I am not sure of the extent of Microsoft’s ambitions for this first Windows release of Kinect, but at $249 with no software (the Xbox version includes a game) I would think it will be a hard sell, other than to developers. If wonderful apps appear, of course, I will change my mind.

Could Kinect trigger the Xbox 360 RROD (Red Ring of Death)?

On November 10th, launch day in the UK, I received and installed Microsoft’s Kinect motion controller. I wrote up my first impressions here. My Xbox was an Elite, bought to replace a launch 360 that had succumbed to the red ring of death – the means by which the console communicates hardware failure – been repaired, and failed again.

I left Kinect attached though I admit it has not been much used. Two and half weeks later, it was the turn of the Elite to display three red lights – at just over three years old, so beyond Microsoft’s extended RROD warranty.

It is probably coincidence, though some are theorising that the Kinect, or a system update associated with it, has tipped a proportion of Xboxes into failure:

I have a theory that MS was (and still is) having latency/response issues with the Kinect hardware and used one of these updates to speed something up, possibly XB360 memory speeds or access times, and some of the older 90nm hardware just can’t take it. There are LOTS of people who owned older systems that melted down immediately after the update/Kinect hookup – far to many to be a coincidence and even MS support admitted to me that repair call volumes were extremely high.

It still seems a stretch to me. There are a lot of Xboxes out there, and in the normal course of events a some of them will happen to fail at the same moment or soon after installing Kinect. The Kinect has its own power supply when connected to consoles older than the 360 Slim which appeared this summer.

Nevertheless, I was stuck with a broken Xbox. Fix or replace? The problem is, the 360 is not a reliable design – maybe the new slim model, but while the Elite is an improvement on the original, it is still, I believe, less reliable than most modern electronics. Although I could get the Elite fixed, I doubt I would get another three years of service from it. In any case, the eject button has also become unreliable, and sometimes the DVD tray has to be pushed up with some force in order to persuade it to work.

Instead, I went out and got 360 Slim, which has a bigger hard drive, integrated wi-fi, quieter running, and no need for the supplementary power supply for Kinect.

I whiled away Sunday afternoon transferring games and data from the old hard drive. I still had the hard drive transfer kit which I had used for the Elite, and it worked fine for the Slim although it tool several hours.

There is another complication when you replace your Xbox. The transfer kit moves any games you have purchased from the Live Marketplace, but not the DRM (Digital Rights Management) which protects them. In consequence, they revert to trial versions unless you are signed in with the account under which they were purchased.

The fix is to transfer the content licenses, a process which involves signing into Xbox Live on the web as well as on the new console. It is a two-stage process. First, the new console is authorized as valid for those content licenses. Second, the actual licenses have to be transferred. You are meant to able to do this second stage from the web, but this did not work for me. I found I had to repeat the download from the Live Marketplace on the 360 itself. When I chose Download Again, the download completed nearly instantly, implying that it merely verified what was already downloaded, but in addition it did some DRM magic which enabled the full games for all users of the console.

So … I got less than two years out of the original Xbox 360 (December 2005), and a little over three years from the Elite. Here’s hoping that the third attempt lasts longer.

First impressions of Microsoft Kinect – great hardware waiting for great software

The moment of magic comes when someone walks through the gaming area and Xbox flashes up the message that they have signed in. No button was pressed; this was face recognition working in the background during gameplay.

So Kinect is amazing. And it is amazing: it is controller-less video gaming that works well enough to have a lot of fun. That said, I also have reservations about the device, though these are first impressions only, and feel it is let down in a big way by the games currently available.

My device arrived on the UK launch day, November 10th. It is a relatively compact affair, around 28 cm wide on a stubby stand. The first task is positioning it, which can be a challenge. You are meant to place it above or below your TV screen, at a height of between 0.6m to 1.8m. I was lucky, in that our TV is on a stand that has space for it; the height is fractionally below 0.6m but it seems to be happy. Alternatively, you can purchase a free-standing support or a bracket that clips to the top of a TV. I imagine there are some frustrated first-day purchasers who received a device but cannot satisfactorily position it.

You also need free space in front of the set. Our coffee table got moved when the Nintendo Wii arrived, so the 6ft required for one-player play is not a problem.  Two-player is more difficult; we can do it but it means moving furniture, which is a nuisance. Overall it is more intrusive than the Wii, but less than Rock Band or Guitar Hero with the drum kit, so not a deal-breaker.

Microsoft takes full advantage of over-the-wire updates with Kinect. After connecting, the Xbox, the device firmware, and the bundled Kinect Adventures game all received patches; but the procedure went smoothly.

Kinect is a sophisticated device, a lot more than just a camera. There are three major subsystems in Kinect: optical, audio and motor.

  • Motor is the simplest – the stubby stand also contains a motor assembly that swivels the device up and down, enabling it to allow for different positions and to find the optimal angle for players of different heights.
  • The optical subsystem includes two cameras and an infra-red projector. The projector overlays a pattern on the field of view. This allows the first camera, a depth sensor, to map the position of the players in three dimensions. This lets the system detect hand movements, for example, which are usually closer to the camera than the rest of the body. The second camera is a colour device more like the one in your webcam, and enables Kinect to take pictures of your gaming antics which you can share with the world if you feel so inclined, as well as presumably feeding into the positioning system.
  • The audio subsystem includes no less than four microphones. The reason is that Kinect does voice recognition at a distance, so needs to be able to compensate for both the sounds of the video game and other background noise. Using multiple microphones enables the audio processor to calculate the position of sounds, since each microphone will receive a sound at a fractionally different time.

These sensors systems are backed by considerable processing power – necessary because the Xbox itself devotes most of its processing to the game being played. The trade-off in systems like this is that the more processing means more accurate interpretation of voice and gestures, but taking too much time introduces lag. As I saw at the NVIDIA GPU conference in September – see here and here for posts – very rapid processing enables magic like robotic pinhole surgery on a beating heart – and like Kinect, that magic is based on real-time interpretation of physical movement. Kinect is not at that level, but has audio and image processor chips and 512MB RAM, along with other components including for some reason an accelerometer, mounted on three circuit boards squashed into the slim plastic container. See for yourself in the ifixit teardown.

But how is it in practice? It certainly works, and we had a good and energetic time playing Kinect Adventures and a little bit of Joy Ride. Playing without a controller is a liberating experience. That said, there were some annoyances:

  • Kinect play is more vulnerable to interference than controller gaming. If someone walks across the play area, for example, it will interfere.
  • In the Kinect system, there is no such thing as a click. Therefore, to activate an option you have to hover over it for a short period while a progress circle fills; when the circle is filled, the system decides that you have “clicked”. It is slower and less reliable than clicking a button.
  • The audio system enables voice control which seems to work well when available, but most of the time it seems not to be available. Considering the amount of hardware dedicated to this, it seems rather a waste; but presumably more is to come. Controlling Sky player by voice, for example, would be great; no more hunting for the remote.
  • The Kinect seems to work best when you are standing. For something like a driving game, that is not what you want. Apparently seated gameplay is supported, but does not work properly with the launch games; so watch this space.

Launching stuff before it is really ready seems to be ingrained in Microsoft’s culture. Is Kinect another example? To some extent I suspect it is. I recall the early days with the Nintendo Wii as exciting moments of discovery: the system worked well from the get-go, and the bundled Wii Sports game is a masterpiece. The Kinect games so far are less impressive.

In fact, my overwhelming impression so far is that this is great hardware waiting for software to show what it can do. The 20,000 Leaks mini-game in Adventures is not very good – you are in a glass cage underwater and have to cover leaks to stem them – but it is interesting because you have to use head, hands and feet to play it. It could not be duplicated with a conventional controller, because a conventional controller does not allow you to move one thing this way, and another thing that way, at the same time.

It follows that Kinect should enable some brilliant new gaming concepts. I’d love to see a stealth adventure done for Kinect, for example; there are new possibilities for realism and excitement.

As it is, the Kinect launch games show little imagination and seem to be heavily Wii-influenced – and if you compare Kinect with Wii on that basis, you might well conclude that the Wii is better in some ways, worse in others, but cheaper and with better games, and without the friction of Kinect’s somewhat fussy requirements.

Such a comparison is not fair to Kinect, which in concept and hardware is a generation ahead of Wii or PlayStation Move. It now awaits software to take advantage.