Version tested: Xbox 360
Kinect Fun Labs appeared on the Xbox Live dashboard with uncharacteristic stealth back in June. It was hardly a secret, but given that it essentially offered free software for the world's fastest selling consumer electronic gadget, it was a muted debut. A straw poll of Kinect-owning normal people in my social circle reveals that none of them were actually aware that Fun Labs even exists.
Perhaps that's deliberate. The plugins released so far are less finished software and more experimental ideas. Rather than a shop window, Fun Labs seems to be where Microsoft plays around with what its camera can do, tests new functionality and occasionally shows off a little of what they've got in store, tech-wise.
But even if that's the case, it remains a curious beast. Of the six Kinect gadgets available to date (five free, one paid for) there are glimpses of what could be useful and interesting development work, but also a lot of rough edges and a lingering sense that the EyeToy could probably do a similar job. As a showcase, it's severely lacking in show.
While it's not much of a lab at the moment, there is at least some fun to be had. Here's our roundup of what's on offer right now.
Just add an exclamation mark to the end, and this promises to be the interactive sex simulation that we've all been dreaming of. As it stands, it's a rudimentary tool that scans your real face and spits out an Avatar version. Does it work? Not really. It does a good job of matching your clothing, proving that Kinect can read colour fairly well, but the faces look pretty hideous.
Not everyone likes the design of the Xbox Avatars, but they at least have a consistent cartoon feel. Kinect Me messes all that up by incorporating photographic elements, such as your mouth, with smooth facial features created by the in-engine graphics. The end result looks like your corpse has been dipped in wax and then had cartoon features drawn on top in marker pen.
The resemblance is close enough to be creepy, but not polished enough to impress. You can't actually use this as your Avatar obviously, as it would horrify the world, and nor can you do much with the model once it's done. The 3DS does much the same thing with its Mii Maker, and does it better, quite frankly.
Blessed (or cursed) with the most irritatingly catchy jingle of all time, Googly Eyes promises to be a much more amusing use of Kinect's various features. You hold up a household object, then flip it around so Kinect can scan the back as well. It then creates a virtual puppet from this object, and sticks – yes – a pair of googly eyes on top. You can then control it by jumping around, and record a short clip with voices.
It's a cute idea in theory, and out of all the Kinect gadgets this was the one that my kids enjoyed the most. Even then, the entertainment ran dry pretty quickly and the quality of the results varied from fantastic to terrible depending on the object in question. Simple shapes, like a cushion, work almost perfectly. Soft toys, the obvious choice for this sort of thing, come out looking weird. Movement is especially bizarre, as the software interprets the shapes with no frame of reference, so that dear Teddy's arms and legs tend to merge into each other and it bends and warps in odd places.
Part of the problem is the way Kinect uses its depth perception for background extraction. It essentially places a horizontal field across the play area, and anything that is held in that thin strip of space is what gets captured. Often, it's difficult to keep your hands out of the shot, while the edge finding is still chunky and rough. When it works, the result is reasonably impressive. When it doesn't, it just looks horrible.
A more recent addition to Fun Labs, this is basically an evolved version of Kinect Me that uses the same visual information to create a bobblehead figurine based on your face and (optionally) your clothes. There are also 12 preset costumes to wear - ranging from pirate to princess - and you can record a voice message that plays whenever you "hit" your bobblehead.
It's another cute idea but one that also has limited entertainment value. And, as with Kinect Me, it has trouble merging your real features with the rigid plasticity of the character models. Real mouths look smushed and smeared, while cold, dead doll's eyes glower above.
Credit where credit's due, the software is reasonably good at matching skin tone and colour, but the results just don't look very good and once you've made a couple of bobbleheads, there's not much else to do.
Just as Bobbleheads is the technology from Kinect Me tweaked into a slightly new shape, so this is Googly Eyes pretending to be Kinectimals. As before, you scan an object but now get to choose from three either-or personality traits - serious or silly, for example. You can also record three voice clips. Your buddy is then hatched, and you get to play a very basic “repeat the actions” game where you jump, duck, wave, dance and play peek-a-boo.
And that's it. There is at least a semblance of gameplay in this one, and you can go back and change the personality settings for any of the buddies you've created. The buddies themselves seem to act identically, but the choices do dictate what sort of "character" it will be. Pick bouncy, crazy and silly and you get a Clown, with circus themed scenery items and reactions. Other combinations I discovered included cowboy and ninja.
The same visual problems from Googly Eyes recur here, and are amplified by the wider range of motions your creation is put through. When flipping, rolling and running in circles, anything beyond a simple shape takes on a frankly disturbing appearance, like those Silent Hill enemies that are just undulating bags of skin and meat. If you really want to traumatise a young child, just scan their favourite toy. Nightmares guaranteed.
This is the only gadget – so far – that comes with a price tag attached: 240 Microsoft Points. It's not much, but is it justified? From a technology point of view, yes. From a gameplay point of view? Not so much.
It is, as the name suggests, a virtual sparkler. Just like on bonfire night, you can swirl your hand around and leave sparkling trails on the screen. Once you've doodled a giant fizzing cock and balls, there's really not much else to do - other than starting on a large pair of boobs.
No, where Sparkler becomes interesting is in the mechanisms driving it. This is the first Kinect app to use finger tracking, with your sparkler bursting into life when two fingers are held up and switching off when you make a fist. There's also a little bit of background manipulation, as you take two photos on which to doodle. The first is the foreground, the second becomes the background. By moving your hand forwards and backwards, it's possible to trace your sparkler around and behind the foreground objects.
It's actually very clever but, like a real sparkler, also fairly boring, and the initial thrill fades long before you run out of fuse.
Microsoft's much-vaunted DIY Avatar chatshow suite makes for a strange companion to the other Fun Labs gadgets, feeling more like it should be snuggling up with the social features on the dashboard rather than sharing space with sock puppets and bobbleheads. What it shares with its Fun Labs peers is a sense of promising technology that never quite convinces or excites.
There's no shortage of options for those with both the inclination and energy to stage their own Kinect shows: six different stages, ranging from practical to imaginative, and a selection of different seating arrangements that allow for intimate chats, formal panels or solo soliloquies. It also lets the dusty old joypad in on the action, with button prompts for basic emotive responses so you can agree or disagree with another guest without talking over them. You can even walk offstage, maybe because you need a wee, or because Clive Anderson refuses to take the Bee Gees seriously.
So in terms of functionality, it's pretty good. The sharing options - which are available across all the Fun Labs software - make it easy to upload your show and share it on the social network of your choice. All that's missing is the motivation, so it'll be interesting to see how much use Avatar Kinect actually gets.
Less impressive is the facial recognition, which supposedly maps every raised eyebrow and mouth movement onto your Avatar. And, let's be fair, sometimes it does. Certainly, my Avatar immediately looked furious and irritated which is a more accurate reflection of my normal face than the fake beaming smile I originally chose to adorn my pretend head. But then at other times the face changes randomly, or not at all.
The mouth movement, too, is hit and miss. It's best when you're making a very obvious and unmissable sound - the open "Ooooh" mouth, for example - but unless you're making Kinect porno or a Frankie Howerd tribute, that's going to have limited value. For the rest of the time, your Avatar mouth moves like it's talking, but rarely matches up to the words you're saying, and with only a handful of mouth shapes for it to choose from it's often like watching a badly dubbed episode of Captain Pugwash.
So, annoyingly, Avatar Kinect both works and doesn't. As a social tool it's got a limited audience, but for those inclined to make their own YouTube chatshows it's got much to recommend. What it doesn't do very well is sell Kinect's more precise tracking features, hampered as it is by the need for good lighting and often exaggerated facial movements.
So what can we take away from this? There's not much point putting a score to something that is (mostly) free, and Microsoft is certainly to be applauded for turning its tech demos into something that people can actually play around with. If it's going to start charging for these trinkets, however, the quality and playability is going to need to take a sharp upwards turn. Right now, these are fleeting distractions that might keep families entertained for a few minutes, but if people are sharing lots of material, I'd warrant it's only to grab those free Achievements for uploading 25 videos from each gadget. Nobody would expect hours of content from such a project, but you'd at least hope for digital toys that have more than 10 minutes of appeal.
Mostly, it's disappointing that the technology on display feels so clumsy. It feels like a step backwards for Kinect, displaying its limitations more than its strengths - right when mainstream developers are starting to do interesting things with the device outside of the obvious motion control applications.