Man/Machine Interface is at a crossroads. The paths being taken by the two contenders to for revolution are best summed up in the words of the marketers.
When I interviewed Josh Hutto, the product marketing manager for Kinect, his opening line was this: “Clearly a much better wand wasn’t really going to be the solution for us.”
On the flipside, When I interviewed John Kollar, director of hardware marketing for Sony, the guy behind Move, he was clear that it was all about the hardware:
“The PS3 is an HD system. As more consumers adopt HDTV, the PS3 is becoming their system of choice -- to have blue ray, to have HD gaming and now to have PlayStation Move.”
Is it possible to truly handicap the future? And if not, what’s a lowly consumer to do?
I’ve been fascinated by both Move and Kinect since they were announced. At press events, in public locations, and at conventions I took every opportunity to experience them as they developed.
Those early experiences were, at best, a mixed bag. Here’s my summation of pre-release experiences with both platforms.
Kinect: Bad lag, non-intuitive interfaces, seemingly random recognition of body location, and a limited, thin selection of "experiences".
Move: Calibrate every 10 seconds. Then go play some Wii games that are just a bit prettier, except for the random missed inputs and crazy unintended gestures.
Hardly rave preview material. But with little else to go on, I diligently filed pre-release holiday-buying-guide copy to a mainstream publication, loaded with “beta” caveats which will likely get removed in the final edit, long after I’ve cashed the check.
Fast forward to this weekend.
Both the Move and Kinect have found a way to live in my TV cabinet, wedged on either side of the Wii sensor bar.
Here was my setup experience for both.
Kinect: I plugged it in. I walked through 2 minutes of “stand here, be quiet, hold this postcard” instructions. I put Dance Central in the tray and walked away. My 10 year old daughter figured out the rest.
Move: I synced the Move controller and handed it to my 6 year old son. He pointed it at the PlayStation Eye camera (once I scraped the dust off it that's accumulated since the Eye of Judgment launch), and held down the big button in the middle.
Since those elaborate and exhaustive installation nightmares, I’ve barely had a chance to wedge my way into the living room. Both technologies simply work. But what’s interesting isn’t so much that they work, it’s that they work so much better than they did in press briefings or at PAX or on the floor of Macy’s or in the Microsoft store.
It’s as if sometime in the last 8 weeks a benevolent deity descended into both Sony’s and Microsoft’s houses and approved a billion hours of overtime for “tweaks,” where, in this case, “tweak” means “go from laughably inconsistent to incredibly refined in a month.”
My children haven’t sat still in two days. Peter, my youngest, has been playing on the floor with EyePet for the PlayStation Move to the point where my actual, real pet dog is jealous. My daughter has been working her way up the leader boards in Dance Central for Kinect, where she's majoring in Lady Gaga. I’m correlating each minute of Lady Gaga to one dollar of future therapy bills, but she’s a sweaty, giggly mess, so I let it go.
I’m not an idiot, all evidence and opinion to the contrary. Like everyone else, I read reviews and blog posts from people I genuinely trust. I see that my family’s experiences with both platforms aren’t the norm. I attribute this to having a very large, well lit living room with a white floor and movable furniture. You know all those Move and Kinect Ads? That’s what my living room looks like. My house is the ideal environment for any system that relies on machine vision.
In that near-laboratory setup, both technologies feel so much like science fiction, it's a bit unnerving.
When the dog runs in front of the EyePet on my dirty white carpet, the EyePet gets out of the way.
When I stand in front of the Kinect sensor, it aligns and centers on me perfectly, the rag-doll wireframe perfectly matching my hand motions, so that with a 3 inch flick of my wrist I can navigate menus.
And yet, I read the horror stories. The people who cannot get themselves to appear on Microsoft’s big brother eyeball because of poor lighting or bad glasses.
All this screams “wait” to me. But it doesn't scream "ignore this, it's VirtualBoy."
In their own ways, both Move and Kinect are genuinely the future of man-machine interactions. Kinect games in the right environment are like nothing I’ve ever played before, and the experience of navigating through a well designed program (meaning, the one Kinect title made by Harmonix) is like living on the deck of a starship.
The Move, on the other hand, delivers a precision that is, particularly when paired with augmented reality systems like the EyePet, simply magical.
Is all of this perfectly realized today? Nope.
But is it, in my miraculous living room conditions, something you’ve never seen before? Yep.
This time next year, I predict that Kinect will have sold like wildfire, because it delivers that shock of the new almost instantly. Move will likely be floundering, mired in poor marketing and an unclear approach. And yet both titles will be successful in their own way. That my children each latched on to a different platform is telling. My son, more a genetically predisposed gamer comfortable with a controller in his hand, found the Move’s ice-cream cone controller to be a magic wand extension of himself. There’s little doubt that when someone makes a game that lets him use it as one (perhaps in the upcoming game, Sorcery, he will blow a vein in excitement.
My daughter, a much more physical and expressive person by nature, has pronounced the Kinect is the best videogame-thing ever. The simple act of waking up the Xbox by talking to it or waving at it makes her giggle. I imagine it’s just a matter of time before someone comes along with a game which lets her rub her hands together to make a fireball out of thin air and hurl it at bad guys on the screen, and her fantasy life will be complete.
These kinds of interactions are the future. And for many gamers, or I should say Gamers, that’s probably when you’ll want to buy it. Right now, they’re beta tests for the George-Jetson-possible. For some, it may be a “Jane, stop this crazy thing” experience.
But for me, it’s a ride I like being on.