You may have noticed something missing during Microsoft's E3 press conference, which was a effectively a reboot of the Xbox One. That something is the Kinect One.
True, Harmonix did get a few minutes on the stage to remind everyone that Fantasia: Music Evolved still exists, and that they are making a new, downloadable-only Dance Central. But other than that, the Kinect One was conspicuous in its absence after a year spent trying to sell users on television and voice command integration.
Microsoft's Phil Spencer, of course, continues to insist that Kinect One is a big part of their plans for the Xbox One.
"We see millions and millions of people using Kinect today. We've had over a billion voice commands used. The use of Kinect in people's homes is incredibly high. And because people are continuing to use it, it's an area we're going to continue to invest, in terms of making the experience better," he said in an interview posted today over at gamesindustry.biz. "And I think that makes building games in that environment even better. Consumers love the device; they love the experience. They'll buy it. They'll either buy it at launch when they buy their console, or they'll be able to buy it after the $399 console; they'll pick it up and add it on later. And we'll continue to make sure that experience is great."
For all of Spencer's brave words though, the Kinect has proven to be something of a millstone around the Xbox One's neck. It was the Kinect One that pushed the original launch price to $499, giving Sony room to heavily undercut Microsoft with the PlayStation 4. It was the Kinect that heavily informed the design of the Xbox One's UI, arguably making it messier and less attractive than the competition. And it was the Kinect that ultimately held back Crimson Dragon, which began as a promising update of Panzer Dragoon but was ultimately a disappointment.
Shouting commands at the Kinect was a novelty for a time; but as the months wore on, it became increasingly clear that it was a hindrance rather than a help. Putting aside the mild embarrassment of shouting at the TV ("Xbox! Xbox! Xbox?"), the Kinect One wasn't quite the evolution that Microsoft made it out to be. Microsoft's vision for entertainment is interesting; but by and large, it hasn't come to fruition because the Kinect isn't as reliable as it needs to be.
"My son and I sit there saying random things at it, and it doesn't work." - Peter Molyneux
In a forum post entitled "Already Disconnected the Kinect" over on Giant Bomb, one user complained, "I hooked up my TV to the Xbox One without issue, however, the Kinect consistently misinterpreted my speech when trying to change channels and watch shows; even with another couple calibrations, I still couldn't get the thing to accurately interpret my speech more than 60% of the time. General other functionality has been problematic as well."
Over on NeoGAF, another user wrote earlier this month, "The thing only recognizes my voice commands about 30% of the time at best."
Even Peter Molyneux, who once demoed the Kinect on stage, has had harsh words for the Kinect. Speaking in an interview with Edge back in April, Microsoft's former prized developer said, "I actually wish Kinect wasn’t a requirement. It feels like an unnecessary add-on to me. Maybe it’s because we're in England, and it doesn't really use the TV stuff, but it feels more and more like a joke. My son and I sit there saying random things at it, and it doesn't work. They could cost-reduce it [by removing Kinect]. I’m sure they’re going to release an Xbox One without Kinect. It would be unthinkable that they wouldn't." Sure enough, Microsoft did just that less than two months later.
Whether or not they admit it, Microsoft seems to recognize that things haven't gone as well for the Kinect as they had previously hoped. Over the past month or so, they've steadily backed way from the device, swallowing hard and dropping it from the Xbox One bundle in order to get its price on par with the PlayStation 4. Apart from Harmonix, Kinect-driven games have dried up. The Kinect, for all intents and purposes, is now just another peripheral.
Its legacy remains though. The Xbox One's UI has major usability problems stemming in large part from its reliance on Kinect, and major partners like Harmonix are now being forced to contend with a split userbase. What was once supposed to be the Xbox One's defining feature—multimedia integration driven by Kinect—is now mostly an afterthought. Microsoft had the right idea in trying to make sure that the Xbox One had a defining feature that would set it apart from the PlayStation 4, but they seem to have badly miscalculated in trying to make it an all-in-one media center.
For Microsoft, it would seem to be the final epitaph for an era that began with such promise back in 2009, when the Kinect was seemingly set to blow the Wii's motion controls out of the water with its integrated camera and mic (remember Molyneux and Project Milo? It feels like an eternity). Some have even been saying that it's the end of the motion control fad in general, though that's less apparent. They'll surely continue to find expression in virtual reality—Sony has completely integrated the PlayStation Move into Morpheus—and products like Leap Motion hold plenty of promise. But though Spencer would say otherwise, actions speak louder than words, and the Kinect's moment in the sun is more or less finished.
Going forward, Microsoft will do their best to make do with what they have. Having spent so much money on the Kinect's development and promotion, they are unlikely to abandon it completely. There are likely be a few more Kinect exclusives—fitness games and kids games being prime candidates—to go with firmware updates that quietly improve the Xbox One's UI. And unlike the PlayStation Camera, which has been an afterthought almost since its inception, Microsoft will almost certainly continue to keep the Kinect front and center in their promotional materials. In other words, the Kinect One isn't going to be that much different than the original Kinect, which started strong but was forgotten not long after.
Microsoft won't be able to forget though. After all the money, and all the hype, they are still stuck promoting a peripheral that no one seems to like very much. And much as they try and downplay it, the Kinect figures to be a problem for a few years to come.