Xbox One has a Kinect problem, but can 'Cortana' fix that?

Microsoft announced its new Xbox One console in May with a much-ballyhooed press event that largely proclaimed the greatness of the console’s TV features, made possible by the next-generation Kinect sensor.

The not-so-subtle assertion at the event was that the bundled Kinect sensor was a large part of the Xbox One experience – a feature that would set the console apart from its competitors. So far, however, the sensor has a major drawback that should be a major advantage: its voice recognition capabilities. Microsoft surely knew it was making a big gamble by selling the console with a bundled Kinect sensor, thereby increasing the cost, and so far the gamble hasn’t paid off in terms of capabilities.

The next-gen Kinect sensor has primarily frustrated rather than satisfied gamers so far.

When the Xbox One launched in November, reviews praised the console’s all-in-one features with one big caveat: Kinect’s voice recognition, as with the Xbox 360’s Kinect sensor, was sporadic at best. Now that users have played several games that make use of voice recognition, complaints of games consistently not recognizing speech are becoming commonplace. Wired, for instance, published an article on Thursday proclaiming that “Kinect completely ruins ‘Need for Speed [Rivals]’ on Xbox One.”

Voice recognition in Xbox One games released thus far has been alarmingly bad.

The problem boils down to poor recognition of natural language. In the “Need for Speed Rivals” case, the command “open map” was confused with similar-sounding phrases, including – amusingly enough – “the Kinect is a piece of crap.” I’ve experienced similar issues in “Dead Rising 3,” where even coughing or a chair squeaking will accidentally resume a game from the pause menu.

Obviously developers have to do better, but any help Microsoft could provide in terms of the tools that go along with Kinect would clearly make their lives easier – and soon that may just happen.

Recent reports indicate Microsoft is working on a digital assistant codenamed “Cortana” (after the Halo franchise’s A.I. companion) that will use voice recognition. Cortana is expected to first launch as part of Windows Phone 8.1 early next year before making its way to Windows 8.1 and Xbox One. It’s believed to be similar to Google Now in that it will recognize natural language – a significant step up from Kinect’s current command-based system.

As far as Windows and Windows Phone are concerned, Cortana is a much-needed feature in the battle against Android and iOS, which have Google Now and Siri, respectively. The new assistant will reportedly replace Bing as the default search service for Windows Phone, and it will be able to “learn and adapt” to user input, according to ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley. Those are great features for personal computing devices, but they could be even more important on Xbox One, where memorized commands often aren’t recognized.

The Halo franchise's Cortana A.I. assistant

Since the first-generation Kinect sensor was introduced at E3 2009, it’s always been a technology that promised more than it delivered, thanks in large part to Microsoft’s unclear strategy. Games such as “Kinect Sports” and “Kinect Adventures” showed the accessory’s potential, but despite selling 8 million units in 60 days, the amount of games released with Kinect features slowed to a trickle. “Zumba Fitness: World Party” was the only game released in 2013 that required the original Kinect, and only a few other games offered additional functionality with the sensor.

Microsoft has shown little interest in bucking that trend with Xbox One’s Kinect, as only a handful of games have been announced with extensive support for it. So far, only fitness games and the abysmal “Fighter Within” make significant use of the device; “D4,” “Fantasia: Music Evolved” and “Kinect Sports Rivals” are the only upcoming announced games that can be controlled solely with Kinect.

On the Xbox One itself, Kinect is useful for basic interactions, but users still have to memorize set commands to properly control their consoles. It’s a neat added bonus, but probably not something most people would spend $100 on when a controller serves the same purpose while being both quicker and more precise. The SmartGlass app for Android, iOS, Windows and Windows Phone also tends to have more real-world uses than Kinect at the moment. The only navigation-related task Kinect can do that a controller or SmartGlass app can’t is use Xbox One’s integrated recording feature.

Why use Kinect to navigate the Xbox One interface when either a controller or the SmartGlass app is both easier and more precise?

In an interview with canada.com published Thursday, Larry Hryb, Xbox Live’s director of programming, promised the Xbox team would “continue moving forward and refining the technology” used in Kinect, presumably referring to Cortana. There’s no reason to doubt Hryb’s statements, but that doesn’t diminish the need for a better long-term strategy for Kinect.

It’s one thing to promise improvements, but it’s far more important that those improvements are actually used for the benefit of users. Put simply, there needs to be a compelling reason for users to want to talk to their consoles. After its initial launch, Kinect owners had little reason to use the first-generation sensor once they beat the few good games available. The resale value of the original Kinect has plummeted to reflect that: eBay auctions for used versions of the accessory typically top out at about $50, while GameStop offers a paltry $10.

Microsoft needs a better plan if it wants the new Kinect to meet a different fate than its predecessor. It’s great that the sensor serves as the backbone for Xbox One’s TV integration, but that feature alone doesn’t warrant a significant portion of the console’s price tag.

Images via Microsoft

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