I’ve always been fascinated by the Xbox Kinect. When Microsoft debuted the platform, then known as Project Natal, the company promised it would enable an entirely new type of gaming, one in which your entire body would serve as the controller. Consumers clearly loved the idea — the first generation Kinect sold more than 10 million units by 2011, which is an excellent attach rate for a console peripheral. Microsoft took note of that success and doubled down on it, declaring that every next-generation Xbox would ship with a Kinect included.
Polygon has published a truly excellent deep dive into the design and development of Kinect, from conception to the Xbox One. The story they tell is fascinating. Microsoft’s goal with Kinect wasn’t to match Nintendo or create a gimmicky camera product. Having seen how the Wii could get people off the couch and drive sales to families that had never bought a console before, Microsoft hoped to bring an even more radical product to market. Making the player’s entire body the camera would (in theory) be a radical leap forward for games, unlocking immersive experiences that controller-based play simply couldn’t duplicate.
Much of this is no surprise to anyone who remembers Project Natal’s marketing. What I didn’t realize until now is how many different teams at Microsoft were involved in building the product.
The Kinect is no longer just an Xbox project — it is a Microsoft project. Nongaming divisions of the company, such as Microsoft Research and Windows, are brought on board to help out. The Bing team plays a significant role in bringing the Kinect’s speech recognition and natural language processing online.
Polygon’s story makes it clear that Microsoft was really, genuinely excited about the possibilities of the project. When it became clear that even Kinect 1.0’s strong sales weren’t going to be high enough to stimulate much developer interest, Microsoft decided to double down and make the peripheral central to the entire Xbox One. Here’s Richard Irving, group product manager on Kinect:
“From Microsoft’s perspective, it wasn’t just about video games. Right? It was about the future of computing,” Irving says. “Which, if Microsoft is really going to bet its resources on something like Kinect — gaming is a great business, but Microsoft is so much bigger than gaming. When you look at what Microsoft cared about [with] Kinect, they really cared about the future of computing.”
I think this quote explains Microsoft’s confused initial approach to the Xbox One. The XB1 unveil, if you recall, was virtually devoid of games. It focused on things like multimedia capabilities, a Steven Spielberg-directed Halo TV show, sports, and screen sharing. To be blunt, it didn’t make much sense. Why was Microsoft trying to push a camera nobody wanted — a camera everyone knew made the console more expensive? Why were they focusing on streaming capabilities at the expense of, you know, the games people actually wanted to play? Why was the company offering a much-desired feature (library sharing) but chaining it to an onerous digital authentication system and telling people to buy an Xbox 360 if they didn’t like it? Why did these features require radical changes to the physical game distribution model?
Microsoft didn’t have great answers to these questions. The company’s entire vision for the future of the Xbox One was out of sync with what gamers wanted. Sony capitalized on player unhappiness by emphasizing that the PS4 wouldn’t change anything relative to how the gaming market worked at the time. The Polygon article doesn’t really dive into why gamers didn’t want a Kinect bundled with an Xbox One other than price, but I’d argue that the company was hurt by the then-ongoing Snowden disclosures and the discovery of Microsoft patents related to using Kinect to count how many people were in a room in order to enable per-person movie rental fees. Microsoft may have had brilliant ideas about transforming the future of gaming but it had less luck articulating that future to the public.
The Polygon story makes it clear that there were people at Microsoft who were deeply passionate about Kinect and its possibilities, including folks who wanted to push the boundaries of how games could work. Thinking back to the Xbox One unveil and initial events, it’s startling how little of that collective passion actually came through in the early public events. Kinect itself has been used for a number of pioneering computer vision projects. It just never found a home in gaming, partly because of the economics of game development. Polygon goes into more detail on this and I don’t want to steal their thunder.
I want to make it clear that my theories about how Kinect’s design goals impacted the entire positioning of the Xbox One are mine and mine alone. Polygon’s story doesn’t address that issue specifically.
It’s possible Microsoft thought it had an opportunity to move the entire gaming industry in a new direction. It decided the best way to accomplish it was to introduce all of the new features simultaneously rather than through incremental product evolution. I’m not a Kinect apologist — I think part of the reason Microsoft failed is because Kinect wasn’t what people were looking for — but I also think the company may have had no idea how to talk about its concepts for the future. Emphasizing that the machine could do everything only left people wondering why they were supposed to want one, at a time when fears about surveillance were on the rise. Sony offered an improvement on the status quo and the promise that things wouldn’t change.
Ultimately, though, I’m glad Microsoft developed Kinect, just like I’m glad for the PS Move, Wii motion controllers, and PS VR. We need game developers and hardware designers to be willing to take risks on hardware. The only way to find out what will work is to try things that might not.
Top image credit: IGN
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