TIM NICHOLS measures fun.
A slim, 32-year-old psychologist, he spends his days behind a one-way mirror at Microsoft’s video games research center here, watching people play the company’s Xbox systems. He looks for smiles, listens for ecstatic squawks and logs triumphant gyrations. When a game is good, it elicits all the above and gets a “fun score” high enough for Microsoft to consider selling it.
And, of late, the fun quotient has skyrocketed.
The company’s blend of game developers, interface whizzes and artificial-intelligence experts has built Kinect, a $150 add-on for the popular Xbox 360 console that hits stores next month. With its squat, rectangular shape and three unevenly spaced eyes, this black device looks like a genetically underserved creature from “Star Wars.”
In fact, Kinect arrives with a healthy dose of sci-fi trappings. Microsoft has one-uppedSony and Nintendo by eliminating game controllers and their often nightmarish bounty of buttons. Kinect peers out into a room, locks onto people and follows their motions. Players activate it with a wave of a hand, navigate menus with an arm swoosh and then run, jump, swing, duck, lunge, lean and dance to direct their on-screen avatars in each game.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people try and do the moonwalk,” says Mr. Nichols, as he recalls their first, curious encounters with their virtual mimics.
Kinect also understands voice commands. People can bark orders to change games, mute the volume or fire up offerings, like on-demand movies and real-time chatting during TV shows that flow through the Xbox Live entertainment service.
The mass-market introduction of Kinect — with its almost magical gesture and voice-recognition technology — stands as Microsoft’s most ambitious, risky and innovative move in years. Company executives hope that Kinect will carry the Xbox beyond gamers to entire families. But on a grander note, the technology could erase a string of Microsoft’s embarrassing failures with mobile phones, music players, tablets and even Windows from consumers’ minds and provide a redemptive beat for the company.
“For me it is a big, big deal,” says Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive. “There’s nothing like it on the market.”
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