Xbox Kinect raising the bar, remotely
My TV remote control just got a lot more remote. Instead of resting in my palm, it’s sitting on the other side of the room, perched right below the TV. And instead of pushing buttons, I’m barking out orders.
It’s the Kinect video game controller by Microsoft Corp., attached to my Xbox 360 game machine. Equipped with cameras and microphones to let gamers play merely by speaking or moving their bodies, the Kinect also makes a pretty good hands-free remote control. And thanks to newly updated software, the Kinect and Xbox have now set a new standard in interactive TV technology.
The software is free, and is installed automatically onto any Internet-connected Xbox 360. But of the 55 million or so Xboxes in the world, only about 10 million are linked to a Kinect device, which costs an extra $100, and allows users to play motion-controlled games like Dance Central 2. But Microsoft always intended the Kinect and the Xbox to be all-purpose entertainment hubs, and the new software is a big step in the right direction.
Remember Google TV, and its misbegotten effort to let you search the Internet for all kinds of entertainment options? Thanks to Kinect, and a customized version of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, the Xbox does it much better. Ask it to find, say, the venerable TV series “The Office,’’ and up pop links to three different Internet services where you can see old episodes: Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Microsoft’s own Zune service. If you subscribe to any of these services, you’re in.
Verbal cues appear on the screen, telling you what words to use. Say “next,’’ and the Xbox will scroll through the episode list from Season 6. When you see something you like, call out the episode’s name, and it starts to play. Want to pause, fast forward, or skip to a different episode? Just say the word.
The same goes for music. Ask Bing for, say, R.E.M., and you’ll get listings of the band’s songs stored on Zune. For $9.99 a month, you can listen to “Shiny Happy People’’ whenever you want.
If you need a little exercise, try issuing commands with your hands. The Kinect’s motion-tracking camera lets you scroll across multiple screens with a wave of your arm. Point at your selection, and it runs.
Links to major cable TV companies aren’t available yet, but Microsoft says that in coming months, it will offer hookups to a selection of programs from Comcast Corp.’s Xfinity TV service and Verizon Communications Inc.’s FiOS. Also still pending is access to everyone’s favorite Internet video service, YouTube.
There are lots more attractive upgrades in the new Xbox software. You can hook up to the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, for instance. It’s especially handy for viewing a slideshow of your stored Facebook photos on a big screen. Or you can post a challenge to other gamers, daring them to meet you in a Battlefield 3 showdown. Gamers will also like the addition of 512 megabytes of free online storage for saving game results and player profiles. It means you can visit a friend’s house, fire up his Xbox, and resume playing a favorite game exactly where you left off at home.
But it’s the integrated video and music features that really matter. Google Inc. and Apple Inc. have been trying for years to develop painless tools for sifting through millions of entertainment options. Google TV was a disaster; Apple TV a decent, but uninspiring effort.
Microsoft’s new Xbox-Kinect solution isn’t perfect. My colleague, Boston Globe TV editor Michael Brodeur, found its speech recognition function a little dicey at times. “You had to sort of shout at it as you would to your husband or wife in the next room,’’ he said. And thanks to its motion tracking, you can accidentally stop the show with an imprudent wave of the hand. Besides, it still doesn’t work with the everyday programming on broadcast and cable TV. I can’t just say “Sunday Night Football’’ to tune into a live game, for instance.
Yet Microsoft has made a big move in the right direction. We’re still a long way from an ideal interactive media system. But it’s finally coming into view.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.