Version tested: Xbox 360
A moment's silence for my EyeToy, please. Like the Atari Jaguar, the Dreamcast keyboard and the Xbox Music Maker microphone before it, it now belongs to the dust-monsters under my bed, and I probably won't see it again until I move house.
I always rather liked EyeToy, but Xbox Live Vision trumps it. Not because it's smaller, cuter, and glows green around the lens when it's plugged in, and not even because it works out of the box with Windows XP as well, but because it's got the Xbox 360 dashboard on its side.
Microsoft's standardised operating system means that you can send and receive video-chat invites and picture messages, take photographs for your gamer-picture and adjust settings even when you're busy trying to gun your way through Doom or playing Ghost Recon online. Just hit the Guide button in the centre of the pad and it's all fairly self-explanatory. Not having to swap discs around or fiddle with PS2's niggly online service gives it infinitely more appeal than its only real console competition.
Plug it in for the first time and thanks to the updates Microsoft beamed to your console this spring, it's ready to go by the time you've automatically signed in.
Layered between your dashboard wallpaper and the overlay of icons you'll find a sort of fluid video background, which shows a faint outline of whatever the camera's looking at. Dive into the System area of the dashboard and you can adjust for lighting conditions, while a grey ring swivels around the nose of the camera itself allowing you to refocus.
Using it to customise your gamer picture is incredibly simple. Pull up the edit-profile page and you can take a photograph to replace whatever your gamer picture currently is - although it's worth noting that only people on your friends list will be able to see this, with strangers left to ponder that picture of a chicken you downloaded last week instead.
But if they're really dying to see your face, they can always send you a video-chat invite. Once you accept, and the connection's been made, you both get a decent-size video stream of the other, while you can chat away using the bundled headset - the same one you've spending a tenner on otherwise.
As with photographs, you can zoom in on a particular section of the screen in video-chat, so neither of you has to lean forward or anything, while an array of visual filters bound can be skipped between instantly using the left and right bumper buttons on the pad. The blurry one's probably best for handsome devils like ourselves, but there are also cartoony ones and a nice sepia option for the more conservative chatter.
Our favourite feature though is the way you can make the other person's pad rumble by holding the left or right trigger buttons. Presumably it's meant to be a sort of MSN Messenger style "nudge" function, but you can probably think of other uses for it - unless you're a littlun, in which case go and find an adult and ask what happens when a mummy and a daddy love each other very much. (And don't be fobbed off with the birds and the bees either - demand graphics.)
Granted, you'll need to make sure you have an Xbox Live Gold account to take advantage of all this video-chat stuff, but you do at least get a month's free access bundled with the camera. Failing that, you can always just use the camera for spicing up music visualisations at parties or, more likely, you'll plug it into the PC and use it for free there.
Any Windows XP PC with Service Pack 2 installed can make use of the Vision camera after a quick trip to Windows Update, and although you'll need to provide your own microphone (the 360 headset only works with that), you should have no trouble at all getting it working with PC software afterward - it works immediately with the Windows Live Messenger, and third-party software should be fine too.
That's not all the camera does though, obviously. Like EyeToy, the intention is to have it offered as an alternative control method in some games. TotemBall, the first game to require the Vision camera to be played at all, is available for free on Xbox Live Arcade, and the same developer, Strange Flavour, is already at work on a pair of camera-based follow-ups.
UNO also supports the camera, allowing you to see as well as hear your opponents during multiplayer games, and a fair amount of people were taking advantage of this when we plugged in - not surprising, since you get UNO free when you buy the camera. Texas Hold 'Em poker will soon follow (er) suit, thanks to a patch set to go live in a couple of weeks, while Activision's World Series of Poker game is said to make more extensive use of it. Ooh, eh?
Meanwhile, on the novelty front, facial mapping options will be offered by Ubisoft as part of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas. Thanks to Digimask technology, you'll be able to take a couple of pictures of your head and then sit back and watch it generate an approximation to appear on your in-game character, which should add some spice to multiplayer.
But, you're probably wondering, what of that TotemBall game? Worth it?
Well, at an inviting price of £0.00, it's certainly worth downloading - but we probably wouldn't base the Vision purchase on it, since it suffers from the same sort of problems that EyeToy action games do.
A 3D platformer primarily, the idea is to move your arms up and down along input areas located at either side of the screen, which use your hand positions to input tank-track like controls to direct your little on-screen character. You raise your arms together to move forward, lower them together to go backward, and turn by holding them at diagonals.
As you go, you pick up lots of shiny little objects that contribute to your score, but the overall goal is to collect little totems partly buried in the ground, which then leap up onto your little turtle-man's head and play part of a tune - with the music changing in variety and depth as you gather more totems.
It's very intuitive, as you'd expect, but as with most EyeToy games that use this sort of control method, your arms get tired pretty quickly. And as your arms droop, so precise control becomes more difficult to sustain.
Still, at least the developer recognises this, and has built in the gaming equivalent of rest-stops - pick up a bed icon and you're allowed to rest for a few seconds, while platforms that hold you steady and ferry you to a new play area also encourage you to rest your arms. The readout of scores at the end of a level is deliberately staggered, too, giving you a chance to rebuild your strength.
In contrast, there's also an achievement called "Fit Player", which rewards you with some points if you can keep going for 20 minutes on one level without resting.
It's an enjoyable enough game then, and also features pinball bonus levels where you flap a hand left or right to operate the flippers, and a two-player "juggling" mode where one player flaps and the other presses buttons in time to juggle the totems bouncing along on the turtle's head. Those with strong arms will certainly get several hours of entertainment out of finishing the single-player game, with lots of achievements based on endurance - high scores, skipping off the water 100 times, completing levels against the clock without losing lives, and so on.
Even so, it feels like a game designed to fit awkward controls - and reminiscent of older EyeToy games released when the novelty factor was still riding high.
Xbox Live Vision as a whole, though, has little to criticise about it. We're all suitably wary of camera-based games these days, and in this case the package's success needn't hinge on whether TotemBall's likely to keep you busy for as long as something like Dead Rising. That's not the point. As a bonus, it's quite neat.
Aside from that, the video-chat system and general integration with the dash is robust and inconspicuous, with little evidence of lag between you and the on-screen version of you, and little evidence of lag during video-chats either. The camera itself looks like it'll survive the occasional tumble, too, and with some good features and bundled extras, the Vision's versatility ought to ensure a decent take-up - while the Xbox 360's unparalleled online service guarantees a smooth and unobtrusive experience.
In other words, I'm not that bothered about what's happened to my EyeToy. Although I might start to care again if Sony's PlayStation 3 service can rise to the challenge.
Xbox Live Vision is due out in Europe on Friday, 6th October.