The significance of Kinect

My wife and I have just spent a few hours on our spanking new Kinect system, toying around with three games: Kinect Adventures, Kinect Sports and Dance Central. Having spent the last month reading about and around it, I wanted to get down a few initial thoughts about what this technology may mean.

I don’t remotely buy the “it’s not about video gaming” line, because (a) I’ve always felt that an inevitable part of gaming growing up as a medium is its growing sociability, universality and diversification; and (b) It seems very important that this technology is coming at the world from a gaming background, as part of a dedicated gaming system, and equipped with products designed by games companies. Why? Because the games industry has certain virtues that you don’t get elsewhere in tech.

First, this is console gaming, which means Kinect really is plug and play. Not in the computing sense of plug, play, install drivers, update, restart, hope for compatability. You plug it in, and it works. This is a big deal if a technological development is to have real impact, especially if you combine it with another point about gaming: the size and nature of the audience. Kinect is being released for a machine, the Xbox 360, that has shifted over 50 million units to date. And it’s not one accessory among many made by rival developers: it’s official, and it’s a big deal. All of which means that as a purchaser/player you’re not one of thousands or hundreds of thousands, but one of millions trying all this out, just a month or so after launch.

Most crucially, you’re trying out this technology not in an office, or a public library, or a school, or a street. You’re at home and you’re at play. And the fact that you’re playing grants the most vital kind of licence – the licence to get things wrong, to relax, to look silly and not care. You’re putting aside your worries and having fun, which also means that you may not even notice that you’re rapidly developing some complex skills at a radically new way of interacting with a machine. And you’re almost certain to be sharing this experience: either with friends and family in the room, or with others online. This is the kind of fun that pretty much demands to be shared, and explored alongside others.

Where it gets really exciting, though, is when you look at what exactly the Kinect interface means. Because with technology like Kinect, it’s no longer adequate to say that you are simply interacting with a machine, as you are when you’re using a keyboard and mouse, or even a Wii controller. Rather, thanks to those unblinking stereoscopic cameras, you are actually achieving a presence within and via technology.

What I mean by this is something close to the original Sanskrit word from which the term avatar is derived, meaning “incarnation” – the act of being embodied or made flesh. In this case, you are being incarnated in digital flesh. It’s impossible not to experience an intense and rapid identification with that outline of your own body moving in synch on screen. And you can add to this the minor miracle of facial and bodily recognition. You step in front of the camera and wave, and a machine is no longer simply being controlled by “a user”; it’s being controlled by you, and specifically by you as defined by the same things that make you “you” in other most people’s eyes: your body and face and movements.

This is virtual identity not as a login, password and profile, or even a lovingly-fabricated character, but as an embodied being projected onscreen. This is your virtual self in quite a new sense. And services like avatar Kinect suggest that we’re barely at the beginning. It’s marvellous, dizzying and a little disturbing. And play is our first and best window into this future.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to play some more table tennis.

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