Compared to the past's hopes for the present, ours is a disappointingly dull period in the advance of man. Our quest to escape this backwater rock is stagnant, even regressing—a vision increasingly starved for resources by petty terrestrial concerns. Having split the atom, we now find ourselves too petrified and mistrustful of our capacity to justly wield such power to continue developing it.
The past expected an advancement of the Atomic and Space Ages, not this Information Age. This is not The Year We Make Contact; it is the year we can hardly avoid constant contact. Our pockets are filled with blackberries and apples, fruit granting all the knowledge of the clouds on high at the expense of a precious chunk of life.
The tech media can be exhausting, even sickening; the tweets, likes, top tens, viral this or that, all doused in gloss and amplified to absurdity by the Internet echo chamber. But there is real significance in what is happening, signal amidst the noise.
And so begins this column, in which we explore technology—i.e., in the imitable words of computer scientist Bran Ferren, "stuff that doesn't work yet."
Everything I say will be wrong and never exhaustive, but perhaps some will be useful.
The instructions on how to play sometimes border on absurdity: to throw, make a throwing motion; to run, run in place; to jump, jump. Sometimes you forget that anything is watching, or that you don't actually have a ping pong paddle in your hand. You start a slow clap, and the virtual bystanders join in. You score the winning goal and lift your arms triumphantly; the stadium crowd roars its approval.
And then the highlight reel begins, and Kinect reveals its presence as you relive your antics through the lenses of its three cold eyes.
Microsoft's new $150 add-on for the Xbox 360 video game console replaces the button-laden controller—familiar to some, hopelessly intimidating to others—with a sophisticated sensor that sits above or below your television, watching and listening, building an internal three-dimensional model of your play space, isolating and interpreting the movements and sounds of the people within.
The gestural controls rightfully prompt comparisons to the Nintendo Wii, which invoked a mixture of awe and ridicule at the time of its April 2006 unveiling and soon blew past its more traditional competitors in sales. But Kinect is a revolution in its own right—an early, sometimes frustrating, but thrilling stab at a new era in human-machine relations.
From the first crude stone implements to the iPhone, we have interacted with technology primarily by touching it. Much has been handheld, and the tech that isn't has been controlled by something we do grasp or otherwise touch: a steering wheel, a remote control, a mouse and keyboard.
This has worked extraordinarily well in most cases and continues to be refined. Indeed, the chief advance in human-computer interaction over the past few years has been the modern multi-touch screen, which co-locates input (touch) and output (screen) to facilitate direct natural manipulation of onscreen virtual objects, excising the abstraction of shuffling a puck along a desk to accelerate an onscreen pointer.
No technology, though, has matched the intuitiveness and richness of the ways we can interact with each other. We have retained a key advantage over the machines: remote sensing and the audiovisual processing capabilities to make sense of it.
Kinect goes a long way toward closing that gap.
At a time when most of the hottest gizmos encourage us to bury our heads deeper in our smartphones and tablets, Kinect frees us—indeed, requires us—to stretch and move. The technology is located in our shared communal space, not in an individual's palm. Responsibility has been shifted; the user is unburdened. You don't learn to speak its language, because Kinect has already painstakingly learned yours. You don't hold the technology; you are enveloped by it.
Because of that, the experience is inherently multi-user, and scales elegantly: there's no marginal cost to adding a player, except the non-trivial issue of floor space. No controllers to buy or pass around—just step in front of Kinect next to your friend, even in the middle of a taxing obstacle course or river rafting adventure, and you can join without missing a beat.
It's fortunate that there is no rule against unsportsmanlike conduct, because in quiet moments players almost inevitably seem to attempt a broad repertoire of celebratory dance moves. The results aren't perfect, but they are a blast. Once-dignified, even cynical, college students are reduced to fits of hysteria.
Of course, much as almost every other device throughout history has totally lacked remote sensing, Kinect totally lacks tactile feedback. It also requires a lot of space, and occasionally contorts your on-screen avatar into impossible postures. Interfaces have yet to be standardized; navigation is a mix of pointing, swiping and gesturing; it's sometimes slow and cumbersome, sometimes fast and incredibly satisfying. The field is young; today's Kinect games are arguably Pong all over again.
But it's on track to be a hit. Kinect sold a million units in its first 10 days of availability; by comparison, it took the (admittedly much more expensive) iPad and iPhone 28 and 74 days, respectively. The open-source community is hard at work hacking it to control their computers, or strapping it to autonomous Roombas or finding mind-blowing new uses for the 3D video output.
Meanwhile, the incredible success of the likes of Wii, FarmVille and now, potentially, Kinect has left the serious gaming community doing some soul-searching. The Halos of the world are thriving more than ever, true, but there is a powerful riptide dragging portions of the industry away from high art and toward mindless mainstream entertainment.
"Did you see how many Kinects those f***ers sold?" asks a character in Wednesday's installment of the popular webcomic Penny Arcade. "It's official. We don't know anything about video games anymore."
But natural user interfaces are a humanitarian cause. Let us pause and appreciate this new level playing field we find ourselves on, where we compete regardless of technical background, regardless of whether you were sufficiently privileged to grow up with a keyboard and mouse and gamepad. Kinect may be limited and rare today—itself an artifact of privilege—but the paradigm will spread; it will imbue our environment itself with intelligence, with an understanding of our natural being.