Kinect is dead. Even its Xbox One adaptor is dead. And I mourn Kinect a little, because there are moments where I remember loving it. Crucially, though, in none of these moments was it connected in any meaningful way to an Xbox.
Kinect was a bit of a bust in the living room. In my memory, instead of landing you in a dynamic Minority Report future, with its hand-chops, air-grabs and dramatic pinches, you had this naff little pointer on the main UI, as if the goal for navigating menus was to make the experience akin to rolling a single grain of rice over a Scrabble board. And then with actual games, Kinect was magic, but the wrong kind of magic: the smoke-and-mirrors and five-aces-visible-up-the-sleeve kind. With actual games, there was always the suspicion that you weren’t doing very much – or you weren’t doing half as much as you were being made to think you were. Kinect looked great in the huge auditorium at the Galen Center when it was announced, but it never looked great at home.
But there is somewhere it really worked. And weirdly, that’s huge auditoria. The best day with Kinect I ever had, I had at the Barbican in London, stood before two pieces of installation art.
The first was a work by Chris Milk, the entrepreneur and film-maker (and all sorts of other things). Milk’s installation, called the Treachery of Sanctuary, was the star of the Barbican’s 2014 Digital Revolution exhibition, as far as I’m concerned, and Kinect was at its core. In a huge dark room, visitors stepped in front of Microsoft’s motion-controller in order to see their silhouettes displayed on a vast white triptych. Once in place, they would watch their bodies fragment into birds, and then be eaten by other birds. Finally, they would spread their arms to find they had been given gigantic wings. There was even an Easter egg that allowed you to fly. Kinect may have been a bust for Ultimate Fighting, but it let you fly if you stuck it in a museum.
Elsewhere at the Digital Revolution exhibition was another piece of Kinect-powered bedazzlement. Les Metamorphoses de Mr Kalia, by Cyril Diagne and Beatrice Lartigue, explores “the concept of metamorphosis, the natural capacity of animals to abruptly change their body structure”. What this amounts to – and wonderfully – is a piece of 21st century Victorian stage magic, if such a thing is possible. Mr Kalia is a cheerful, gangly, skeletal presence projected on a huge sloped wall. He goes through a series of bizarre organic changes, sprouting bird boxes, locks and keys. When you duck behind the screen to see how Mr Kalia is controlled, you discover that you can control him: he is driven by the movements of people passing in front of Kinect.
Reading back over my original piece on Digital Revolution, what strikes me most is that a lot of this exhibition fell a bit flat. Video games have historically been rather solitary things, and when you stick them in a museum they just sort of sit there and get a bit sad. Kinect, though, is all about being seen. You’re being seen by the camera, of course, but then the camera’s work is visible, ideally, to many other people too. It is a gimmick in the purest most positive sense, and it requires what most gimmickry requires – a large semi-interested audience in transit. Even in the living room, Kinect was always best when you were showing it off to friends. It was best when curious third-parties wanted you to give them a glimpse of the future before everyone sat down and had a nice Kahlua.
There is a lesson here, I guess, and it’s true even before you dive into the tech details and the question of whether Kinect was actually a cool machine that got preemptively gutted by the money men, came out wonky as a result and then never managed to regain anyone’s trust. The lesson is that sometimes people invent something, and it isn’t actually that brilliant at the sort of things they really have in mind for it. Kinect and games, even if the thing worked, isn’t really a terribly exciting match. Certainly I can’t think of any games that properly made the case for Kinect – except, maybe, for the peerless Child of Eden, and that one I’m putting down to magical Miz and his magical team. (Actually, there’s another great Kinect memory: Miz on stage at the Ubisoft press event, his back to the audience, white gloves on his hands, conducting us on our return journey to the world of Rez. What do you know, Kinect soared that day – and yes, it was in a huge auditorium.)
Kinect had potential elsewhere – and in the right setting it could be immediate and charismatic and deeply memorable. But Microsoft needed it to be a games thing, a mass thing, a living room thing. So Microsoft squashed it into a games console, and in doing so they missed the weird fleeting greatness of their own invention.