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.