The Kinect has long been a part controversial, yet also innovative and defining inclusion to the Xbox One.
Microsoft was once committed to the motion sensing peripheral, even willing to charge £80 more than Sony’s PS4, such was its faith in the tech.
As the man who designed the hardware, Carl Ledbetter, tells Develop, early on Microsoft even toyed with the idea of building the Kinect into the Xbox One itself. A permanent, non-removable feature. And one of the key reasons it decided against it were based on looks.
“We actually built models of that,” he reveals.
“We pushed ourselves, can we put it all in one? Is that going to work? And the technology just isn’t there yet. As soon as you have something much bigger than the Kinect sensor people don’t want to put it by the TV, it’s too big.”
Microsoft has unbundled the Kinect, that decision to not integrate the it into the Xbox One hardware appears to be one of the console’s saving graces.
The firm has now been able to significantly drop the price to compete with Sony, but it has also dealt a devastating blow to one of its most unique and next-gen features. It's a decision that has also affected one of its key first-party studios and the sensor's biggest supporter, Kinect Sports Rivals developer Rare.
Despite the change of heart, Ledbetter describes creating the design of the new Kinect as “an extraordinary challenge”. And one he was more than happy to be a part of.
Despite being a controversial figure to some in the new era of consoles, the new version of the motion sensing tech was designed to be both simple and approachable.
“On the original Kinect sensor, the microphones were embedded inside, and they kind of pointed down,” he explains. “On the Xbox One Kinect sensor we had to create a separate microphone bar. So our design challenge here was, how do we make this look simple and clean and allow it to adjust?
“So that’s what we worked on with the engineering team. And the reason why the microphone bar was separated was purely because of the quality of the experience. So we wanted voice recognition to be improved and better and we found because the Kinect sensor has a fan in there, a really small fan that cools it, by putting the microphone bar in its own housing, it was better quality.”
Below you can view early prototype sketches of the Kinect and Xbox One, and you can see the various ideas Microsoft played with when it came to creating the the sensor's look.
Ledbetter says going vertical, as with the Xbox One itself, was out of the question, given the arrangement of the microphones inside and the need to accurately track a players movement.
Eyes on you
Another element of consideration Microsoft and Ledbetter’s team took its potential to feel invasive in the living room.
It’s obvious after the fact that it could spark privacy concerns, particularly after a plethora of stories on government spying in recent months. This arguably reached its peak in February when it was revealed that British spy agency GCHQ had identified the Kinect camera as a possible tool for spying on the public, part of a wider surveillance program entitled Optic Nerve. Microsoft denied knowledge of the program.
Ledbetter says he thought about the potential for such concerns during the design process, but explains ultimately Microsoft didn’t want to disguise or hide the sensor, but rather “show what it can do”.
“Yes, we did [consider privacy concerns],” he says.
“We did a couple of things. The first was the RGB camera. The one that is used for Skype and the full colour, high definition camera. We could have put it behind the glass and made it more invisible but we wanted to retain a crisp, quality image.
“So we actually celebrated that detail so people knew it was there. That was really important that they knew the camera was there, that they knew it was high quality.
“The second thing we did is integrated a small light next to the camera so whenever the sensor is on and it’s actually connected during a game or it’s recording content through that camera, that other light will come on to tell people. So it’s sort of like on the air, we’re recording, it’s watching. Sort of a notification.”
He adds: “At some point the people who don’t see the value in what that delivers in the content, well then maybe they don’t have the Kinect. It wasn’t so much about trying to disguise or hide the sensor, it was really about showing what it can do.”
Despite having put so much work into designing the new sensor, Ledbetter claims he wasn’t sad to finally see it unbundled, and uses the Microsoft line that it’s all “good for the consumer”.
“It’s all designed together, it’s holistic. And in the version that consumers can buy that doesn’t include Kinect, it still all works,” he says.
“And so I think I share the same opinion that everybody does that by having more choice for the consumer, and a new point of entry for them, it’s great.
“So somebody can now buy the console and who knows after a day, or a week or a month they can always go buy the Kinect sensor, add it and plug it right in.”
The future of the Xbox One and Kinect is a completely different one envisaged by Microsoft from last November. But will unbundling the sensor bring the console back into the race against the PS4? Or has the company stripped off what makes its offering unique?
Image credit: Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft