Xbox One Review Part 4: Kinect – What it Really Does, and Privacy Concerns

By November 28, 2013
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Perhaps no greater critique against the purchase of an Xbox One exists than in the purported capabilities of its new Kinect sensor. With recent high profile stories in the United States focusing on the National Security Administration and their activities in maintaining intense levels of surveillance on a number of people and organizations, including American citizens, it seems that one of the first criticisms levied at the Xbox One before its release focused on Microsoft’s ability to now watch and listen to your every move. Oddly enough, these concerns didn’t seem particularly pronounced when Microsoft introduced the original Kinect sensor, but that was also an optional peripheral device for the Xbox 360. If you plan on picking up an Xbox One, the Kinect will be in the box with it (and largely accounts for the $100 premium the console has over Sony’s PlayStation 4).

As is mostly the case with things like this, though, the actual truth of what happens is oftentimes drowned out by how loud the opposition screams their concerns. Should you let a web-capable camera into your living room lightly? Probably not, but being informed about what the privacy policies are, as well as what the Kinect actually sees, hears, and more importantly stores, will make you a responsible participant of the device’s multitude of beneficial and enjoyable features.

An illustration of the Kinect sensor's depth of field, with the red hand being the closest to the sensor and the blue wall being farthest away.

An illustration of the Kinect sensor’s depth of field, with the red hand being the closest to the sensor and the blue wall being farthest away.

What Kinect Sees

One of the most highly advertised features of the Kinect sensor revolves around facial recognition. Most people will see the phrase “facial recognition” and conjure up a picture in their minds of being able to differentiate a person between the way their faces look, but that’s not exactly how it works with the Kinect. Instead, the sensor stores a specific set of numbers about what governs a particular face, derived from the distance between specific points on a face like eyes, nose, or ears. So, you don’t exactly have to be worried about a computer taking a photo of you and storing it on a Microsoft server somewhere near Seattle, because that’s just not how the technology derives its ability to recognize faces.

You might then wonder, how does it recognize distances? It works largely similar to the original Kinect sensor, in that it uses an infrared laser combined with a monochrome active pixel sensor, and this allows it to capture three dimensional data regardless of how bright or dark your room is. When setting up your Kinect sensor, you can actually switch your camera view to the depth field, and it assigns different colors to objects based on their proximity to the sensor: red objects are close, while blue objects are far away.

You may have also heard that the Kinect can actually detect your skeleton, and can differentiate between up to six players at once this way. Largely, the recognition of skeletal points on a player is derived much the same way that faces are distinguished, through specific numerical values. Microsoft has apparently gone on record about the skeletal values, saying that they are “destroyed” after each use. Either way, though, specific numeric values assigned to the dimensions of your skeleton cannot be used to actually identify players, so you likely don’t need to be too concerned about someone at the company figuring out that you had a particularly rough workout one day using Xbox Fitness.

Playing Dead Rising 3 and want to get a zombie off of you? Punch it! The Kinect will detect your motion and you'll then wrestle ol' bitey off.

Playing Dead Rising 3 and want to get a zombie off of you? Punch it! The Kinect will detect your motion and you’ll then wrestle ol’ bitey off.

There was a heavier privacy scare about the potential of the device to cultivate troves of new data for the advertising industry when Microsoft corporate-VP of marketing and strategy Yusuf Mehdi spoke about being at the forefront of a “holy grail” for understanding the consumer in many different aspects of their life. Many people interpreted this to mean that the company would mine data collected from the Kinect sensor in order to sell more ads, but this was quickly and categorically denied by Microsoft, who said that this wouldn’t be done. Period. Mehdi himself stated that the forefront he was speaking of was the intersection between devices, as the Xbox console interacts with mobile apps like Smartglass.

The camera for Kinect, contrary to some belief, is not always on. There’s a clear indicator light next to the camera signaling when it’s active. Either way, although at first denied, the Xbox One’s Kinect sensor can be turned off very easily in the system’s settings, or can be unplugged altogether from the console.

This would be limiting, though, because a lot of what the Kinect does is pretty awesome. When setting it up, for instance, it can actually track your position in the room without actually moving itself. The original Kinect sensor was equipped with motors, but the new sensor does everything by instead zooming and panning the existing video without having to move at all. Certain games you play can actually react to things you say or do. In Dead Rising 3, for instance, you could be standing across from a legion of zombies with a long drop chasm between you, and yell at them. The zombies then start shambling in your direction, walking off the cliff, and clearing your path on the other side. When a zombie grabs you, punch in its direction with your actual arm and you can get it off of you. It’s pretty cool.

What Kinect Hears

If you still find yourself concerned about the sensor capabilities, you could invest in PDP's Kinect TV Mount with "privacy cover." Just in case.

If you still find yourself concerned about the sensor capabilities, you could invest in PDP’s Kinect TV Mount with “privacy cover.” Just in case.

As for the microphone always being on? That’s a little bit of a different story, but only because it allows you to turn your console on when it’s either off or on standby. Microsoft has the ability to collect voice data for “product improvement,” but they also specifically state that it’s entirely optional and will not be done if you do not permit it. In Microsoft’s privacy policy on the matter, they also state, “If you use your voice to enter search terms on Xbox, we will collect your voice snippet and convert your voice to text in order to provide you search results.” Does that worry you? Well, it really shouldn’t, especially if you’ve ever owned an iPhone since the 4S came out. Siri works practically the same way, but in an even broader sense than the Kinect sensor does.

The policy also points out that we “should not expect any level of privacy concerning your use of the live communication features such as voice chat, video and communications in live-hosted gameplay sessions offered through the services.” This means that if you’re talking to other players over Xbox Live in a game session, than everybody can hear you. Your voice could even potentially be broadcast on game streaming sites like Twitch if you join a lobby active on a channel operating there, so that’s just basic common sense.

I already went over most of the voice control features in part 3 of this review, but suffice it to say that they’re pretty impressive, and will likely only get better with time.

Conclusions

So, is the Kinect the massive spy tool that people proclaim it to be? I don’t think so. Much of the potential is certainly there, but Microsoft has stated specifically in its privacy policy that it will not do what many people fear they will, that Kinect will not be used to cultivate advertising data under any circumstances, and going back on that now would likely be a public relations nightmare for the company. Not to mention the fact that the law is on your side (not to mention the Constitution, if you reside in the United States), so until some new, massive expose comes out I really don’t think it’s worth worrying too much about. Especially if you have a smartphone, a tablet, a webcam…well, I think you get the idea.

So far, Kinect has managed to enhance my gameplay experience as well as the way I control the console. I’ve talked with friends over Skype on it, and I really think it’s an awesome device that works well with the new Xbox. I’m kind of kicking myself for never getting it for my 360, actually. If you’re still not sure, then the best thing you can do is read the privacy statement regarding the console, including Kinect, for yourself. If you’re still not sold, then maybe it isn’t for you. If it abates some of your fears and want to give the features a try, then maybe you should move Kinect to the “plus” column on your reasons to pick up an Xbox One.

In the next part, we go over what video disc and VOD services are like on Xbox One, as well as the highly advertised TV features! Click below to read it now!

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.