One of the perks of this job is being able to go to some major Hollywood awards shows and performances, but attending Microsoft’s unveiling of its new Xbox 360 motion-detection device, called Kinect, was an experience that trumped all the rest. The tech giant hired the French-Canadian circus group Cirque du Soleil to create an all-out extravaganza that’d introduce Kinect (and kick off the annual E3 videogaming convention) with a bang, and boy did they succeed. I think. See, I’m still trying to process the hallucinogenic fever that occurred Sunday night inside L.A.’s Galen Center. I’ll attempt to describe some of the evening below, but I also encourage you to catch the TV broadcast of the show on MTV this Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. (It’ll air again at 9 p.m. on Nick at Nite, mtvU, MTV Hits, and Logo). Now, grab your poncho and let’s begin. No, seriously, you’ll need a poncho for this ride.
Brief lesson for the uninitiated: Kinect (formerly named Project Natal) is Microsoft’s response to the Nintendo Wii system. With the Wii, you hold a controller that tracks your movements and then integrates those movements into the video game. But with the Kinect, there’s no controller whatsoever. Instead, you simply stand in front of your television and use your body, a la Minority Report, to control whatever is on the screen. In other words, the human body is the controller, and the idea of making technology adapt to our bodies was prevalent throughout Sunday’s show.
Outside the Galen Center, I joined an ever-growing line of media, industry folks, and who knows who else. While more and more gamers these days are female, that doesn’t seem to be the case with the reporters who cover video games — this line was at least 90 percent male. Just outside the entrance were some Cirque du Soleil acrobats beating drums and contorting their bodies in ways that God never intended. And then we entered the Galen Center, assuming that what awaited inside would be a standard Cirque performance. Now, I’ve seen a couple of Cirque shows in Vegas, so I knew going in that they’re a strange bunch. But this was something else…
Inside, Microsoft reps handed everyone a white poncho with heavy shoulder pads. We put on our ponchos, thinking that maybe water or paint would be tossed around during the show. Then we were instructed to walk down one of two black-curtained hallways. This is where things started getting strange. At the end of the hallway was a rectangular hole cut into a black wall. Through this hole was a nicely decorated family room, and on the room’s sofa sat a smiling nuclear family. The quartet saw me, surely noticed my “what the —- is going on here?” expression, and then waved and beckoned me to step through the hole and enter their living room. And so I did. It then became apparent that the hole represented the family’s television, and that by stepping through the TV and interacting with the family, I was essentially representing the goal of Kinect itself. At least I think that was the general idea.
I then entered the main auditorium of the Galen Center, which normally serves as USC’s basketball arena. The place had been decorated to resemble a rainforest, and about 20 or so Cirque performers (also dressed in rainforesty, Na’vi-esque outfits) were scattered throughout the auditorium to provide some pre-show entertainment. But in my mind, the show had already started. First, I noticed that the audience had been segregated into two groups. Those with orange wristbands sat in the stadium seats surrounding what would normally be a basketball court. Those with green wristbands, like myself, stayed standing on the floor. In other words, we were going to be part of the show.
There was a lot to look at even before the performance officially began. For instance, suspended high from the ceiling was a sofa, and on said sofa was a family of three — Mom, Dad, and a boy. This family, apparently unperturbed by the fact that they were hanging some 100 feet off the ground, continued to smile and point at the giant video screens that wrapped around the entire arena. Also, on the floor was a projected image of a pond, and as I walked across the image, the digital water rippled behind my feet. I could have played around with that simulated pond for hours, but it was time for some of the Cirque acrobats to show off. A male and female performer did all sorts of impressive gymnastic feats, culminating with the woman doing a one-handed handstand on top of the man’s head. Luckily, this is not a maneuver that one has to recreate while playing with Kinect.
I chatted with a few other reporters there, and everyone quickly made the same observation: The whole shebang was like being inducted into an extremely expensive cult. But, I’m telling you, I was gladly drinking the Kool-Aid. I mean, look over there — those two Cirque guys are roasting marshmallows over a fire! My mind was being blown, and the real show hadn’t even started.
Now, the show itself is going to be particularly tough to describe, and I’d rather not spoil it too much for those of you who are going to catch it on TV. But here are a few of the things you can expect to see:
— During the “Prologue,” a booming-voice narrator wondered: “After five million years of evolution, might the next step be the absence of an object?” The production was obviously inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, as three rectangular video screens were lowered to a stage that was covered with rocks. These screens were the monoliths, and we were the apes. By selling Kinect as a major step forward in the evolution of human ingenuity, Microsoft was undoubtedly overselling the device’s importance. But that didn’t make the idea any less cool.
— At one point during the show, a boy dressed like a young Indiana Jones rode in on a massive elephant puppet. The boy got off the elephant and proceeded to climb the hill of rocks. The three video screens were in his way, and the boy “destroyed” each video screen by playing a game that was projected onto the screen. Then the boy climbed onto what appeared to be a boulder, but was revealed to actually be a giant ball with the Xbox 360 logo. The Xbox ball rose toward a massive white screen, and then we heard a loud computerized voice: “Hi Alex… Welcome home.” A digital avatar of the boy (apparently named Alex) appeared on the screen, and as Alex moved one part of his body, his avatar did likewise. Alex then yelled to the screen, “What’s your name?” Six letters materialized on the screen, eventually spelling the word “Kinect.”
— The show’s main set piece was a giant rectangular cube, inside which sat another “family” on a living-room sofa. But, in another cue from 2001, the cube was attached to a centrifuge (or wheel) that rotated 360 degrees. And so the family on the sofa rotated, too, until they were eventually upside down, still sitting on the couch, and still smiling as if this were something that always happens in your living room.
— The family in the cube demonstrated a variety of Kinect games. One, called Kinect Adventures, allowed two players to go river rafting. Another, named Kinectimals, let you play with an animated cub tiger. (In this demo, the tiger enjoyed being petted, fetched a ball, and even mimicked your own movements — missing was the part where the tiger attacked and devoured the gamer). Then there was Kinect Joy Ride, where you raced a car by holding and turning an imaginary steering wheel. And the game that delighted the audience the most was an unnamed Star Wars game in which you battle a bunch of baddies while holding your imaginary lightsaber.
— And in case you were wondering about our white ponchos, the outfits’ shoulder pads were actually hiding synchronized lights. At the end of the show, everyone’s ponchos lit up different colors depending on where each person was standing or sitting.
I’m sure some attendees, particularly hardcore gamers, walked away from Microsoft’s presentation with the opinion it was all style and little content. True, we learned next to nothing about the Kinect device itself — no release date, or price, or features list. And I doubt that this elaborate spectacle is going to make the general public instantly crave the Kinect. In the end, it’ll all come down to how intuitive and fun Kinect is for the casual gamer. But, long story short, I’m just thankful Microsoft put on such a lavish, jaw-dropping, and bizarre production. Whatever it was that I experienced Sunday night, I doubt anything else at E3 is going to top it. That was truly something.
PopWatchers, should Microsoft and Cirque du Soleil be commended for crafting such an awesome show? Or do you think Microsoft made the mistake of hyping Kinect too much? Will the device ever be able to live up to the promise of being “the next step in human evolution?”