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Kinect and Cortana should have been Xbox's Amazon Echo

You were accused of being a CIA spying tool for the living room, blamed for the Xbox One's inflated 2013 price point, hated for your less-than-reliable voice recognition, and laughed at for lackluster games offering.

Yet, I miss you.

Sure, sometimes "Xbox, pause" would require more than three attempts to register. The motion tracking wasn't exactly stellar in most games, and it was pretty damn huge. Finding a place for it around my TVs has always been an issue.

But there was always something mystifying and magical about Kinect, with its beady HAL-9000-like eye and flashing IR tracking lights. Coming home from work to say "Xbox, on," and watching my TV and Xbox boot up, and sign me in with facial recognition felt futuristic. The games might have been unable to compete with mainstream titles, but I had a lot of fun playing Fruit Ninja and Commander Cherry with both younger, and non-gaming relatives.

The irony of Kinect being side-lined is all the more painful given the rise of Alexa and the Amazon Echo, which is essentially a similar proposition. With the introduction of Cortana, Microsoft would have beat the Amazon Echo to the punch had it nurtured and iterated upon Kinect, but alas, like many things Microsoft attempts to do — they screwed up (or gave up).

The Amazon Echo.

The Amazon Echo.

Now Kinect, Cortana, and the idea of voice controls on the Xbox One are all but a forgotten memory. There was a time when every party chat I was in was full of "Xbox record that," the signature chorus of Xbox gamers pwning n00bz. Alas, silence, as most gamers simply press Guide + X to make clips now.

The technology that powers Kinect might have shown up in other Microsoft products, like Windows Hello and HoloLens, but its failure on Xbox is looking like it could have wider ramifications for Microsoft's assistive A.I. efforts, most notably Cortana.

Cortana vs. Alexa

Having used both Kinect with Cortana and an Amazon Echo extensively, it's quite plain which of the two is a better product. The Amazon Echo is far better at recognizing individual voices, responding to complex commands, and has a lot of tricks that beat Cortana running on an Xbox One, most notably when it comes to shopping and integration with other services.

Halo

Cortana is named after the A.I. character in the Halo video game series. (Image credit: Microsoft)

Cortana on Xbox is painfully slow, the commands are less intuitive than the previous "Xbox" call-sign commands, and her feature set is nowhere near as useful as promised in early videos. Development for Cortana on Xbox has practically halted, with no meaningful improvements or updates in the best part of a year.

Cortana and Alexa are teaming up in the near future, with both services becoming available across Amazon Echo devices and Windows PCs. You'll be able to summon either Cortana or Alexa at will, leveraging the separate toolkits of both assistants. It seems a little odd that Microsoft would piggyback on Alexa rather than develop their own assistant, but perhaps not, given how little attention Cortana has received even on Windows 10.

Microsoft had the technology and the software to beat Alexa to the punch years ago, but it didn't. Harman/Kardon is working on an Echo-like Cortana speaker, but it'll likely only hit shelves in the US, before flopping out of existence entirely. Assisted speaker tech is still pretty niche, but it needn't have been with Xbox.

Is Kinect dead?

The Kinect 2.0 (bundled with the Xbox One in 2013) was scapegoated as the cause of the system costing $100 more than its PlayStation counterpart. It was also blamed for taking up system resources, preventing the Xbox One hitting 900p – 1080p resolutions were more frequently found in PlayStation 4 versions of multi-platform games. Microsoft stripped out much of the Kinect features to compensate over time, removing Snap Mode, dashboard motion tracking, and much more, to lighten the load on the OS for other features.

Nowadays, to use the Kinect you need to purchase a separate $40 USB adapter (opens in new tab), as the Xbox One S (or the Xbox One X) doesn't have a Kinect port. Microsoft never released an updated version of Kinect powered by USB 3.0 for use with the S or X, presumably because they're done with the technology – or are they?

To use Kinect today, you're gonna need one of these adapters.

To use Kinect today, you're gonna need one of these adapters.

Oddly enough, some of the games making up the Xbox 2017 Fall lineup are, indeed, remastered Kinect games. Including Zoo Tycoon and a couple of Disney titles. Sure, they don't require Kinect, but support is there.

I have also been told by several individual sources that Cortana development for Xbox hasn't come to an end, but is merely awaiting a new type of framework that should solve some of the problems with speed and accuracy. The amount of Cortana skills (opens in new tab) the assistant is capable of using is set to increase too.

So, if Cortana development is still on-going, and new Kinect games are coming, why continue half-heartedly?

Kinect 3.0

Our Executive Editor Daniel Rubino has recently written about how Microsoft needs a media remote with voice controls in it, to streamline the process of accessing Cortana on Xbox. Indeed, you can use Cortana with any microphone attached to your console, but when you're using that microphone for party chat, it's not exactly as intuitive as a dedicated mic for the assistant, such as via a remote or Kinect itself.

Xbox media remote

Xbox media remote (Image credit: Windows Central)

Lots of newer laptops on the scene have something known as far-field audio technology that allows the laptop or PC to hear voice commands when you're away from the computer. Kinect already does this, using a powerful microphone array that is quite accurate when calibrated properly. For the vast majority of Xbox owners, though, having voice commands is still a niche use case.

Perhaps Microsoft should build a standalone Kinect 3.0, that, similarly to the Amazon Echo, can work both in conjunction with Xbox and independently of Xbox, maybe with phones instead. We're almost 5 years away from the launch of the Kinect 2.0, you have to imagine that Redmond could produce something smaller, less clunky, while retaining the power and functionality.

Kinect 3.0 could be positioned as something that can both take on Amazon's Alexa, Google's own home assistant solution, and other mobile assistants, while augmenting the experience on Xbox One and your TV.

The fact developers can plug into Cortana leveraging the Skills Kit SDK and the Universal Windows Platform, and the fact there is already an array of games and apps on Xbox One that utilize Kinect, puts it in a unique place to take on the Echo even from the back of the race – if someone at Redmond was to care about it.

Kinect and Cortana could be great

Sure, Xbox is primarily a gaming device, but there's no reason it can't be something more in the process. The features are there, the technology is there, and the interest in voice-assisted living room speakers is there, so why has Microsoft given up?

Maybe Redmond has something baking deep in its labs to work towards this goal, maybe it doesn't, but it's just a little frustrating how Kinect's great features got shelved in the whirlwind of negativity following 2013's botched reveal for no real reason. The rise of Alexa and the Amazon Echo proves that there was a market for this sort of service, yet for whatever reason, Microsoft rolled it back on Xbox rather than hit the gas.

Perhaps in the future they can turn things around – if the new framework I've been told about turns out to be a thing – or maybe Kinect will just join the Microsoft Band and Windows 10 Mobile as promising products Microsoft failed to nurture. As of writing, you can still pick up Kinect for around $50 (opens in new tab), but who knows for how much longer.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

54 Comments
  • We have three of them connected to three Xbox Ones, sorry MS are out of the domestic user market, they are forging a future as a back end cloud supplier, and I would be shocked if MS develop anything new for domestic users, another market marked by retrenchment, or should we call it withering on the vine.
  • Maybe Microsoft really shouldn't make anything for anyone anymore…they will only get 💩💩💩 by EVERYONE. Not to make them the saint of suffering, but sometimes its a wonder they even try anymore. Not to say the other tech darlings get a pass every time but… 🙄
  • Good point. Picking on Nadella is becoming like picking on the special kid in class. Beating him up everyday will not make him any smarter. Pick Google or Apple consumer ecosystems, and move on.
  • I imagine groove and the Harman kardon speaker are no longer on speaking terms...
  • once again thank nadella
  • MS not only don't care about their fans / early adopters. They also make it impossible for OEMs to partner. How should Harman Kardon feel? I think the same as HP with the Elite X3... 
  • I'd like to hear someone at a Microsoft shareholder meeting ask Satya Nadella what he would say to all the fans that have been treated so shabbily the last few years.
  • It certainly hasn't been the case that they have nutured an environment recently that moves users to go from needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows, that's for sure.  Abandonment and alienation are the exact opposite of that strategy.  Wouldn't it be better for the shareholders if they just announced they were getting out of all consumer facing businesses like they did with Groove instead of letting it all slowly and silently die?
  • Kinect was a Ballmer baby. Nadella doesn't give a **** about Kinect. This article is pointless.
  • Now that you mention it, after some things that fool Nadella said recently, I now am convinced that a lot of decisions Satya made were specifically meant to pee on Steve's work.  I think he hated that man that much.  And, I'd be perfectly happy to send Nadella packing as well.
  • Nadella is not going anywhere so long as revenues, profits and stock price continue to do well.
  • This will be short-term...neglect the consumer market and they will shoot themselves in the foot with innovation...look what happened  to IBM...
  • I wonder how Microsoft can hope to retain, recruit or develop the engineering talent to invigorate these technologies in the face of apparent disinterest on the part of management.
  • Great question, and the answer is going to be no.  Just another unintended consequense of the mobile, wearable, home automation, etc. abandonment strategy of Nadella.
  • The XboxOne is too expensive, needs too much power and is useless without a TV. That's the big difference between a gaming console and the Alexa devices.
  • Sure, but Microsoft could have iterated on Kinect and Cortana and been in a position be to release something like the Invoke speaker two years ago. But they don't seem able to connect the dots and follow through.
  • True dat
  • Yeah but a very simple software change would make the XboxOne behave like an Alexa without the need to have the television powered up.  Since XboxOne is simply a computer, it does use way less power when it is not being used as much. 
  • Oh my son. If you keep righting articles about what MS could have been you will get crazy. MS haved all the carts to be the first/top player in a lot of tech sectors, but you know what happened :)
  • Shoulda, woulda, coulda... The story of Microsoft.
  • "Perhaps", "Maybe", "Could be".... Come on Jez, you know perfectly well none of what you speculate on could ever come to pass under Nadells's Microsoft. Stop torturing yourself mate, life's too short to be wasted waiting on these dummies.
  • Microsoft lacks imagination to think of the possiblities for its technologies. It seems like other companies pick up on this and run with their own ideas. 
  • I hate turning into the kind of person who says this, but Microsoft constantly take heavy fire from innovation that others reap on later, and then they fail themselves at it. Happened with everything. MS is a company with vision and innovation, actually one of the few today that does it. But it gets them nowhere. I think this might be due to management. MS are not quite there, they still want their solid "cloud first, bussiness first" base. It's a shame, though, because they could expand the industry from their position as leaders. But what they can't possibily shake off is their image, people hate their guts and will think crap as a first reaction to everything they do, no matter how cool and important. It's a curse that's sinking them.   So Microsoft needs fans, a lot of fans. But they also need to DESERVE fans. And let me tell you, as a fan, a lot of what MS is doing lately under Nadella is probably made to drive fans away. Killing Band, Mobile, Groove, etc, etc. The radio silence about mobile plans, all that. Lack of hardware, lack of expansion. Lack of quick response to needs clearly expressed by their users, despite all the Insider programs and such. They don't reply because deep down they don't care. And I don't mean they should just swerve their company strategies following crazy user ideas, but they seem mostly deaf to a voice of people who want their success.   About Kinect, I'm all about this kind of hardware that creates a new experience, and I'd love to have one for PC, and all that. But it didn't catch on, and MS again gave up too fast on a great, promising tech that now others are cashing on (Apple, for example).
  • You are right about fan. xbox, office, window 7. and i am fan of 10 and 950. Point is, theres too many things under MS portfolio.  All i can say is MS is so diversified that losing less than 1% W10M is right time to wipe the slate clean and do over. 
  • Wiping the slate and starting over is one possible strategy, sure. There could be other ways to do it, keeping fans happy with new hardware and winning outsiders, for example. They did this with Surface. They didn't take that route, and it's taking too long. Maybe they are waiting for anyone who remembers Lumias to die and be forgotten, and then restart their phone strategy.
  • Do over is precisely need to happen.  W10M relies on app and the challenge to get developer standing behind it is just impossible. Thank goodness for MS diversification that it lasted this long.  We all know that mobile is inches from being out the door even before MS announce it. Even I know it.  No surprise there. Staying in topic with Kinect, the same thing, what do you think MS should do? Abandon fan or keep kinect R&D group to innovate further.  As of now, we know that commentors have determined if MS abndon Kinect there will be MS fan leaving. There is always 2 sides of a coin, which one has less impact.
  • The issue is and has been for ages a lack of pr and marketing at Ms. They are truly shocking they get in pretty early in development bring it to market and then hand it over to marketing who do..... I'm not sure what with it. Imagine if apple had created a phone with pc like abilities, could you move without seeing an advert? It's bad enough the amount of promotion they putting out about wireless charging, so to have something really new.
    Rant over.
  • Microsoft could have OWNED the living room if they would have made xbox, Cortana, kinnect, and windows media center work together properly. They had all the pieces and just screwed it up.
  • It always has been and continues to be their goal to have a single device automate the home.  The problem is that, at this pace, their delivery timeline will be sometime in 2040!!!  Its not rocket science!  They have all of the components.  I guess they just lack the will be to in the spotlight.
  • I wrote this 4 years ago to Microsoft, before the first Amazon Echo came to market. The company either doesn't listen, doesn't care, is too incompetent to ever  lead an industry or they simply don't want to be a competitive company any longer. The days of Bill Gate's vision and ruthlessness are over and the blind ambitionless Satya Nadella days are here. Nadella will kill this company.
  • Took the words out of my mouth.  Satya has to go.  So does their marketing team.
  • Another MS product ahead of it's time and full of promise. I LOVE the Kinect. Being able to sort through my Groove playlist (another soon-to-be MS abandonment) by voice while washing dishes or working on something else was amazing. Being able to use hand gestures (before MS neutered it) was great because I could navigate silently while the rest of the house was sleeping and didn't have to bother hunting down the controller or my phone.
  • That Nadella said he wanted People to LOVE Windows. Now he is moving in full force to achieve that about Microsoft in consumer space. /s
  • Microsoft needs to hire an entire division that GETS consumers. Can you say "Amazon"? How f-ing hard was it to see that Cortana still speaks like a robot, and takes way too long to respond. I do use it on my computer all day long however, because it is quite smart and gets a LOT of answers right and speak back alot more than it used to. I would love to know just how far MS is backing off of the Consumer market. Seems like a dumb decision, but Satyas the golden boy for now, and doesn't seem to give a crap about anyone unless they are a business with 10,000 employees. Thats what I loved about Ballmer, he loved the fanbase, Satya doesn't seem to give a crap. When I watch some of these business conference and see all the amazing things they can do with Enterprise, one would think that babysitting Consumer needs would be a cakewalk for god sake.
  • Ha ha ha... That's all we get now they should have done this or that... They can't be interested in the consumer... It's not possible to be this incompetent... Let's all just move on... I'm sick of it...
  • Move on to what? Google I guess? They're the closest company in existence to Microsoft. If Google had a serious Xbox alternative and their desktop experience was better I'd probably leave the world of Microsoft for good. Too bad Google rarely puts out powerful products like a high end gaming machine or video editing machine. I am very close to that point where I surrender and just accept Google's products and services for everything. Imagine if there was a way to migrate video production, Steam gaming or VR gaming over to Chrome OS. I really hate being scattered across the tech landscape with an Android phone, Roku player, Xbox/Playstation/Steam, Fitbit or Tizen watch, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon video & Kindle books, LG webOS TV. Nothing is integrated, dozens of operating systems with disparate apps. Microsoft was so close to tying it all together with Windows 10 & Cortana on Xbox/PC/Tablet/Phone/Watch. Nadella blew it all on purpose. He only ever wanted Microsoft to be a cloud company.
  • These things will be abandoned...MSFT is clearly slowly abandoning the consumer market and it will regret this because asa company they will become irrelevant like IBM is now...
  • Is it me or is MS just the modern-day "IBM" or "Bell Labs"...every empire has its expiration date.
  • Don't worry, I'm sure Microsoft has a plan that will either be cancelled in the project stage or launched with keen backing from a few members of staff but lacking corporate backing will eventually be phased out. Urgh!
  • Yet another MS fail! I and may i know bought XBOX ones for the MEDIA INTEGRATION, not the mediocre upgrade in graphics from the 360.
  • I miss Steve Ballmer.
  • I would like to see that MS to be splitted into two companies - one Cloud & Enterprise company led by Satya and the other Windows & Devices company led by Steve.
  • That makes sense since Satya is focused on everything but consumers. I hope the Xbox division doesn't suffer the same fate as Groove and Lumia.
  • Yeah they should make Kinect 3.0 but with easy integration with PC, Mobile phones and Xbox simultaneously or separately while also being able to work standalone like amazon echo. And damn they should market them well just like they did with surface. But they will never do this kinda thing. For some reason I think Nadella is a quitter while Bill and to some extent Steve seems to be fighters. Damn this company is not what it used to be.
  • This fail angers me to no end.  Kinect was an ingenious idea with lousy support.  It was the Wii killer and more. I would rather Microsoft stop wasting time on HoloLens or whatever it is, and focus on a Kinect 3.0, dedicated port, and a plethora of games and support. Yeah, I know, not going to happen.  >:<
  • So on the beta ring in the latest update (Thursday I believe) I seam to be able to talk to Cortana much lower volume than normal speaking from 20 feet away and say things like volume up and have an immediate response much faster than Xbox volume up. I have timed it and it's close to 10-20% faster saying Cortana volume up. But it's spotty (hense the beta) I would venture to say that framework is in a b testing....because my other Xbox has no change.
  • I just bought a Kinect camera ($45) with a Adapter ($38) at Amazon to get ready for my XB1 X.  You need these two to do voice control and Skype on XB1 X.
  • I did the same. I want voice control and Skype with my out of state family from the living room. 
  • Also in all of these techs ms is first to innovate, first to market and misses the evolution phase then gets locked out. If panos is running things now based on the surface track record with terry in charge of software and Alex in charge of the exprimental stuff then I fully expect a late to market fully baked product that at this point basic press won't see comming. Like the iPhone 10
  • Funny you started off with the accusation of being a CIA spy.... I was at a press briefing at the Gamestop Expo in Vegas right before the XB1 launched being handled by Larry Hryb (Major Nelson) and we were in the Q&A segment.  Now, this was after MS already cleared the waters on how the Kinect worked how it wasn't a staright line to the government to listen in..... 2nd question in was "is it true that the government can easily listen in to the Kinect anytime they want?" The looks on EVERYONE's face was priceless....the poor sap got heckled out of the room.
  • Kinect 3.0 done right could provide the computer and the sensors to create cheap VR goggles as a low-cost alternative to HoloLens. You'd merely have to stream the video feed to the goggle, but it could recognize and respond to your body movements/voice/etc.
  • It is sad to see Microsoft constantly be first to market with technology and then they end the project only to watch is wither and die on the vine.  Meanwhile, the competion copies the technology and makes tons of money with it.  Whats the difference between Microsoft and the competion?  Marketing.  It is almost as if Microsoft has projects similar to general business.  When the project is done, you move on to the next project never to look back.  Reminds me of good old IBM.
  • I would blame MS for the failure. They just didn't invest enough of making games for it. Also a lot of people remembered they hype about the first kinect. 
  • 2 things stand out to me in this article... "alas, like many things Microsoft attempts to do — they screwed up (or gave up)."
    "why continue half-heartedly?" The first part answers the second