Saturday, 13 November 2010

Editorial: Having Space To Kinect

Given the nature of how Sony's Move operates in small, enclosed environments so admirably, I never had any large concerns about having enough suitable space in your living room, bedroom etc, in order to comfortably use Kinect. However, it appears that there is indeed some truth in the initial rumours that the device would require nearly 8ft of floor clearance in which to perform without issue.

Most sites have already delivered their verdicts on MS’s supposed Wii stomping trumps card, and although the vast majority of final press has been rather positive, there is one issue that could seemingly affect the vast majority of people looking to jump into controllerless gaming – the issue of making enough room to get Kinect up and running successfully.

Most complaints about the Kinect will no doubt fall onto deaf ears, especially where the mainstream are concerned – they’re not exactly going to notice the sometimes heavy amount of input lag whilst having fun with the kids or the girlfriend. These are, by their very nature, hardcore concerns, concerns in which the core gaming audience are likely to take offence. However, when questions are raised about the space in which Kinect needs to operate optimally, or in any case, to operate at all, then this question about space becomes a very broad concern indeed.

Microsoft have specified that for a single player Kinect requires around 6ft of clear floor space, and for two players a rather large 8ft of space. Note that I mentioned clear floor space – any large objects in the room can, and will on occasions provide problems for the device. It never fails to recognise actual players from background objects, but issues come into play as soon as those objects are actively brought into the foreground.

So, does mean that Kinect won’t work in a small room with less than the recommended space? Well, not really – you can still get the device to work in more cramped conditions, though just not quite as well as you might have expected. In these sorts of situations its operation is far from ideal, and in effect the closer you are to creating an ideal scenario for Kinect to work, the better it is going to function.

The thing is, this really is a problem for homes in the UK, and indeed in many parts of the word outside the United States, where the average room size is no where near likely to provide such floor clearance in a best case scenario, let alone an average one. In my both mine, and my friends bedroom alone you can barely get more than 4ft of clearance without walking into an object of some kind. Be that a coffee table, the Xbox 360, the PS3, or even the HDTV itself. Moving on to my living room, and although things are indeed more than just a tad better, the set-up is far from ideal.

I’m looking at just about getting 6ft away from the TV to the two arm chairs and coffee table situated behind me when standing in front of the telly. It’s just about enough to get Kinect up and running, perhaps working mostly without issue. That is, until perhaps you make a jump forward a little too far, or move just one or two steps closer to the TV when playing. Now, when doing so the distance of available free space is noticeably going to decrease fast, and in turn the Kinect is going to start telling me exactly that, with its plainly descriptive “please step back” message.

The result is that some reorganisation is required in order to prep things out for Kinect. In such a room, it is relatively easy: move back the armchairs and table, push back the TV slightly to the right, thus allowing you to open up more space on all four sides, and bingo, you’ve got a room that is Kinect ready. If of course you are willing to make such accommodations.

Then again you may not even have to in order to get the device set-up to work, even if somewhat haphazardly for brief moments of full-body, motion tracked fun.

As a test case I set up the Kincet at work, in a very cramped staff room. There is just about 5ft between the sofa and the large projection screen TV, with the Kinect situated on top of the telly. In front, and on the floor there is an Xbox 360 and an electrical heater, plus two boxes stacked just beside and in front the sofa. On the right-hand side of the TV there is a fairly large rack standing several feet high, full of bags, clothes and more consoles. And to the left, a solid wall with the odd bits and bobs lying about on a shelf of sorts.

Cramped is a mild way of describing it, and although the area could be cleared, it was being used at that point in time. Ultimately, it made for a rather good initial testing ground.

Even with all this clutter about, Kinect still managed to work as it should do for small, extended periods of the time. The downside is that frequent-ish distconections are none too rare, and during an initial twenty-minute session, I had to allow Kinect to rescan me mid-game on three separate occasions. Each time this happened I was presented with a message telling me to stand back, or move closer to the screen, waving my hand to get the device's attention. Suffice to say, doing none of the aforementioned actually worked. Instead Kinect simply rescanned me, putting me back into the game within half a minute or so, allowing me to continue where I had left off.

Certainly, reports of household furnature being in the playing area interfering with Kinect’s body tracking definitely seem to be true, and all too obvious a problem. The main issue however, isn’t the lack of space, but in being almost utterly helpless when the device loses track of you completely. You simply have to wait for it to re-scan and re-track you again, almost as if it is bringing itself up to speed. Annoyingly, this will both confuse and irritate all those who don’t know, understand, or even care how Kinect works. It’s simply a trial by fire, with you having to move stuff around until the sensor is happy with your set-up.

Interestingly, when I first set-up Kinect, it did detect that I had a space suitable for which a single player could actively play. There was no warning that its performance would be hindered by the various objects dotted around the room, other than a generic one indicating that the space should be clear and free of any obstacles. Basically, it only seems to give you feedback when there is a serious lack of space available.

Saying that, after moving a few boxes out of the way, and moving forward slightly, I did manage to prevent any more unusually frequent dropouts from occuring during gameplay, although not all – enclosed spaces still confuse Kinect. Thankfully, the experience was more than just marginally improved. Just don’t even try to have more than one player on the go at the same time – it simply won’t work. At least, not without being completely broken.

Now, to put things into perspective, it is highly unlikely that MS hasn’t tested Kinect working in a variety of different environments; some small, some large, and some which don’t quite fit the bill of either. However, that is not to say that the nature of the games, the device, and how they work, will still dictate the amount of space required regardless of how much testing is done.

It’s self-evident in just how the technology works in giving you control over what is happening on screen, that it requires a fair amount of space to do this. Unlike the PS Move, Kinect is doing full body tracking for most of its games, or at the very least an approximation of that facility. The result is that the device needs to see your whole body at all times, whilst also assessing your position in a 3D space. It also needs to work out how far away you are from itself, and from other objects in the room. This is the key to getting proper 1:1 tracking working correctly. It actively needs to be able to track you at all times cleanly and fairly precisely. There’s no additional LED marked to help with this.

Adding in two people into the mix (you will want to play with someone else – that’s the whole point) and these problems are magnified slightly, sometimes considerably. Now Kinect requires both players to have their own starting space, a place in which both people can be scanned into the device for use in-game, and of course play without colliding with the other person. Although, it is possible for both players to stray into each other’s space – the Kinect occasionally glitches when this happens, but soon finds its feet and recovers admirably. The problem lies in making nearly a third of extra clear space in which to accommodate two players, whilst maybe allowing other family members to watch from the background.

And with something like Kinect, you’ll definitely want to. Kinect is designed as a multiplayer device. It’s something that the whole family will want to be around. Or at least that’s the general idea. And it’s one that is seemingly backed up by the competitive nature of some of the games, in which human competition far outweighs the meagre excitement of going up against the CPU.

In that respect then, you’ll more than likely need to re-organise your room in order to get Kinect working without issue. One of my work collegues had to do exactly that in order to accommodate him and his missus in what he describes as a ‘fairly large living room’. That 8ft certainly doesn’t magically present itself, that’s for sure. And, I can certaily see many people pulling the “I don’t have the extra two feet required” in order to return what MS are billing as the most user-friendly gaming experience yet.

This definitely isn’t something that you’d want to be happening, especially with an unsuspecting punter that simply doesn’t read IGN, or any one of the mainstream gaming sites. So, in that respect, this issue of space isn’t exactly the kind of coverage MS will want. And the whole notion of having difficulty getting Kinect up and running smoothly; surely that goes against the very naturte of what they are trying to achieve – a gaming platform so ingrained into generating mainstream play, that traditional core gaming titles may not even be possible on the device.

That said, there is much of the Kinect experience that isn’t particularly user friendly at the moment. The uncomfortably limited control of the Xbox dashboard, and accessing the Kinect menu via a gesture system in-game to name but two. However, these and other such teething problems are likely to be well ironed out as time goes by, and the core software improves. What will be an ongoing concern is the actual environment in which Kinect will be used. And in that case, it’s simply down to the user to make sure they can

All I can say is that Kinect works - it is the real deal, when of course giving it the optimal environment in which to do so. The motion tracking isn’t always 1:1, and the amount of latency is noticeably large on some titles. But that doesn’t take away from the software delivering a sense of emersion absent in so many Wii and PlayStation Move titles.

If you have the room for it, MS’s take on controllerless gaming (the only one in fact) is a mixture of intriguing potential and missed opportunity. It isn’t perfect... far from it in fact. And concerns given its operation in even a slightly cramped, but minimum specified 6ft of space is likely to be an ongoing issue. But beyond all that, it is still a lot of fun to play.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, Kinect will work in a wide range of environments, rooms of most shapes and sizes, with even the most strangely unappealing of layouts. Unfortunately, how well it will work is another matter. And all that will clearly depend on how close you actually come in meeting the requirements on the box. There’s only so much the technology can do, for the rest you need to give it a little helping hand. Though for some, that might be easier said than done.

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