Source: In testing the Kinect, two dark-skinned GameSpot employees had problems getting the system's facial recognition features to work.
What we heard: Part of Microsoft's $500 million marketing push for Kinect includes positioning it as an accessible entertainment device for all audiences. However, it may be more accessible to some than others.
While testing out the Kinect, two dark-skinned GameSpot employees experienced problems with the system's facial recognition abilities. The system recognized one employee inconsistently, while it was never able to properly identify the other despite repeated calibration attempts. However, Kinect had no problems identifying a third dark-skinned GameSpot employee, recognizing his face after a single calibration. Lighter-skinned employees were also consistently picked up on the first try.
It's important to note that the problems were only experienced with the system's facial recognition feature and don't prevent users from playing Kinect games. Skeletal tracking, a primary means of controlling games with Kinect, appeared to work the same for all GameSpot employees.
The system's inability to recognize a user only means that he or she would need to sign in manually and some games' features may not work properly as a result. For example, when a second player joins in to Kinect Adventures during the title's drop-in, drop-out multiplayer, the system can't bring up that player's proper in-game avatar automatically if it can't identify the new user first.
If Kinect does have some technical issues related to users' pigmentation, it wouldn't be a first for recognition technology. Last holiday season, users of Hewlett-Packard computers with built-in webcams reported problems with a face-tracking feature.
HP blamed the problem on the webcam's technology, "standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose." It said the system could have problems "seeing" that contrast if there is insufficient foreground lighting.
[UPDATE 11/4] GameSpot continued its testing of Kinect today with more users in different rooms and different clothing. At first, the two employees who originally would not be recognized by the camera were correctly identified on the first try. However, when one changed from a light blue shirt to a black shirt (but stayed in the same room with the same lighting), the camera again failed to recognize him after multiple calibration tests. It also failed to recognize another darker-skinned GameSpot employee after four calibration attempts.
Somehow, those issues may not completely undermine the camera's ability to use facial recognition features. Despite the Xbox 360's insistence that it could not recognize some of the GameSpot employees immediately after calibration, the system was able to recognize them and sign them in properly when they waved at the camera, regardless of their clothing.
The official story: "The goal of Kinect is to break down the barriers for everyone to play, and it will work with people of all shapes and ethnicities at launch."--A Microsoft representative, who added that Kinect owners having calibration or recognition problems can call 1-800-4-MY-XBOX.
[UPDATE 2]: After the additional testing, Microsoft provided further comment, saying, "Kinect works with people of all skin tones. And just like a camera, optimal lighting is best. Anyone experiencing issues with facial recognition should adjust their lighting settings, as instructed in the Kinect Tuner."
Bogus or not bogus: Not bogus that Kinect has problems identifying some users. Abstain on how widespread those problems are, or whether they're due to skin color at all. With the system launching tonight and Microsoft expecting to sell 5 million by year's end, it shouldn't be long before the scope and cause of such problems are identified.