By Sree Sreenivasan
DNAinfo Contrubuting Editor
Thanksgiving 2006. I brought with me to my sister-in-law's home in Baltimore a new gaming console I was testing.
After a meal of turkey and curry (that's a traditional South Asian Thanksgiving), it was off to the basement TV room. And over the next few hours, something amazing happened. I saw kids and grandparents, uncles and aunts, all playing video games together: baseball, bowling, tennis, golf.
Something that only the youngsters should have cared about became a bonding experience for everyone. Thanks to a revolutionary remote control that forced players to actually swing their arms to move their virtual bats, for example, it got everyone off the couch, got them moving and having fun.
That, of course, was the debut of the Nintendo Wii, which went onto become the most popular of the so-called "seventh-generation" consoles, outselling the higher-end Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 systems.
Aficionados of those other consoles pointed out how rudimentary the Wii graphics were and how much less sophisticated the Wii gaming experience was.
All that was true, but unless you were a hardcore shoot-'em-up gamer, the Wii was the way to go (in Dec. 2009, it broke the record for consoles sold in a single month, 3.81 million units).
Families like mine spent way too much money on the Wii because it had something for everyone - an endless supply of games for every demographic, including kids games for our young twins and for us older fogeys (Beatles RockBand, anyone?).
Fast-forward 4.5 years. I am now testing out the Microsoft Kinect (pronounced "connect"), a new add-on for the Xbox, which introduces the concept of "full body gaming."
Here are five things I learned after playing the Kinect for two weeks:
• GAMING HAS CHANGED FOREVER. AGAIN: It was the Wii's remote that made it revolutionary, moving gaming from something you did with only your thumbs to something you did with your entire arm. And you went from sitting to standing to play for most games. Well, the Kinect is as revolutionary as the Wii was.
With Kinect, you have no controller; you are the controller — your entire body. It comes with a sensor that looks like a horizontal webcam, and by constantly analyzing your movements, it lets you control what your avatar does on screen.
As soon as you start playing, you know that you are in a new world of possibilities. You can wave to move menus around; you can speak directions (saying "Xbox" opens up the menus); you jump high and your character does, too.
It takes some getting used to, but it's unlike anything else I've ever played.
The sensor costs $149.99 and can be added to an existing Xbox 360 or you can buy a bundle that includes the Xbox and the sensor for about $400. Microsoft says it has sold 8 million Kinect sensors in the first 60 days since it launched in November.
• JUST ONE GAME KEPT US OCCUPIED FOR TWO WEEKS: Kinect comes with a free game, Kinect Adventures, which make you use your full body to control various river-rafting-type games and similar, well, adventures. It's a fun, easy-to-grasp environment (so much so that my parents, who have never played even the Wii, were trying it out). The games also cause you to get some aerobic exercise as you jump, twist and duck your way through them.
As much fun as the Wii is, we ended up buying a lot of games because the kids wanted to play a variety of games. But this Kinect Adventures game has been more than enough to keep us all engaged for more than two weeks. We're now ready to try more games and will be buying one soon, I am sure.
• KINECT IS OPEN-SOURCE, SORTA: One of the more interesting aspects of the Kinect is what thousands of geeks are doing with it. They are hacking into it to do things never envisioned by Microsoft. These Kinect hacks are ambitious and cover a range of uses. From the site KinectHacks.net, which showcases them:
The Kinect was planned as a fancy, but just fun, XBox 360 accessory for controlling video games. However, hackers was quickly able to connect it to a computer and do awesome stuff with it. Controlling robots, scanning rooms, playing air guitars with real sound, drawing with physics and much, much more are just some of the things hackers have been able to do in a short amount of time.
Microsoft frowned upon such hacks at first, but recently CEO Steve Ballmer indicated that the company would support and enable some of these activities. That makes sense: there are only 50 million Xbox units in use, the number of PCs is far, far greater, enabling more people to potentially connect with Kinect (though the tech curve for doing that is very steep).
I don't have the requisite geek skills for this, but a Columbia Journalism School PhD student named Jonathan Hall is creating a journalism-related hacks, which he talks about at SenseCast.com. I asked him to tell me more. Here's what he wrote in an e-mail:
"Basically, SenseCast is an open-source Kinect-enabled digital-out-of-home display that brings digital media — specifically news-related content — into shared public spaces in a way that reaches out and grabs you. Each display is a digital media hub consisting of an inexpensive LCD screen, a computer (currently a Mac Mini), and an off-the-shelf Kinect sensor array. SenseCast is designed to run apps that bring news content to the physical places where people encounter each other: cafés, malls, train stations, grocery stores, etc. It uses the capabilities of the Kinect sensor array to let people interact with the content (and each other) using natural gestures and a touch-free, germ-free interface. The app we have developed for the student center pulls student-produced news items from the RSS feeds of the various school news sites and allow passers-by to not only page through the stories with natural swipe gestures, but also to 'Like' stories with a simple thumbs-up or take the story with them on their mobile by scanning a QR code."
I think there is a lot of potential for such uses of media. Many others have compared these to some of the ways in which Tom Cruise is seen manipulating data and images in the futuristic movie, "Minority Report." The year represented in the film? 2054.
• KINECT IS SOCIAL, SORTA: When you finish playing a game, the Kinect displays photos of you in action on the screen. For us, they were some of the most dynamic, funny family moments we've seen, consisting mostly of one or two of us up in the air, or looking extremely determined to accomplish the task at hand. These photos are then stored on the Xbox and can be uploaded onto KinectShare.com. While the picture taking is automatic, the uploading part isn't intuitive. There's a way to upload photos from KinectShare to Facebook. I know not everyone would want to share these photos. Still, it's a pretty cool way to share a new glimpse into your world.
• THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING: The Kinect shows that there's still lots of room for innovation in a field that seemed pretty saturated. I expect to see more developments in this area as the sensors gets smarter, the cameras gets sharper and the game play gets more sophisticated. This is going to affect everything from exercise routines to learning new dance and martial arts moves. And the idea of letting your geekiest fans tinker with your platform to go in new directions is especially appealing.
One final note: I also learned it works best if you can be about 10 feet away from the TV and have a wide open, furniture-free space. This has not been designed for Manhattan living. That means I need a bigger apartment.
What do you think? Post your comments below or on Twitter @sree.
Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.