Microsoft’s Kinect has only been on store shelves for a few hours, but it’s already been dissected, critiqued, criticized, lauded and lampooned. Of course, this isn’t your standard gaming peripheral. There aren’t any buttons to worry about or joysticks to fiddle with. Connect the camera-enabled device to an Xbox 360 and the player’s body becomes the controller. In the past, you might have pushed a button in order to make a video game combatant strike your virtual opponent. With Kinect, a player actually throws a punch and the movement is translated into the game in real time. It’s not all hand-to-hand combat. Strike a pose and a yoga game might reward you for your poise. You can accumulate points for a flawlessly executed dance move. You can even pet a painfully adorable animated baby cheetah (I named mine Bernice) and the system’s facial recognition means characters might remember you when you reenter a room.
It’s undeniably cool, but there’s still some question as to how gamers will feel about the controlerless experience. For example, I grew up with Atari and Nintendo, which means I’ve probably spent an unfortunate number of hours using a joystick to drive pixilated cars around pixilated tracks. Decades of finely tuned muscle memory means I’m well acquainted with the joystick-as-steering wheel model, but using Kinect and not having anything to hold, press or steer just feels…weird. It’s going to take a long time before I’m truly comfortable steering with a completely imaginary wheel.
Of course, it won’t be long before Kinect’s model moves well beyond the gaming world. Get ready for facial recognition at point of sale or be prepared to activate a billboard by waving at it. It may take some time to get accustomed to this new world, but don’t worry too much about gaining fluency in an entirely new media language. These systems will be designed with simplicity in mind. Just ask my daughter.
Moments after I started Kinect for the first time, my two-year-old clearly understood that her movements were being translated through Kinect. She doesn’t have to relearn a tactile gaming language in order to adapt to a new gestural paradigm, because this hyperdemonstrative world is the only one she knows. Similarly, she doesn’t know about computer mice because she only knows multitouch. She doesn’t know the difference between “TV” and the “Internet,” because episodes of “Yo Gabba Gabba” show up just as easily on either screen. And she’s being raised in world in which flailing has replaced button mashing. Kinect is being sold as a gaming device, but the story is about the future of our computer interfaces and much bigger than computer boxing or playing with virtual felines. Really, really cute virtual felines.