Kinect. As expected, it was a major focus of Microsoft’s E3 press conference this year. Mass Effect 3, Fable, Ghost Recon – Microsoft was attempting the hard sell: rendering a device designed for a broad market desirable to its uniquely core fanbase.
Voice control was a huge part of the sell – but for Australians at least, it was a classic example of trying run before you can walk.
Because now, seven months after launch, three months after it was promised, Australians still don’t have voice control for Kinect. We spoke to Jeremy Hinton, Group Category Manager at Microsoft, to find out why.
“We understand the frustration,” claimed Jeremy Hinton, after being asked a polite version of the question ‘what gives’, “and we do share those frustrations, but we can totally confirm that we’ll go live with voice control for Australia and New Zealand by the end of this year.”
An extremely vague answer – but we’ll get to that later. Our main concern was why the whole process had taken so long.
“Voice Control is a very significant technical endeavour,” began Jeremy. “Every single time we do a new language we have to start from scratch.
“I know the perception is that English is English but it’s really not. I can turn on the US or the UK dashboard and it works - but it works to a certain degree.
“From our perspective we have a quality bar. This feature is huge part of our vision moving forward. It has to work and it has to work all the time.”
Jeremy then confirmed that the voice control would be put in place in time for the upcoming Microsoft games that supported it – which confused us. We thought games like Kinectimals had already utilised voice control – wasn’t this a separate issue?
“It depends on the games,” he claimed. “There have been some games, like Kinectimals, that have some sort of voice functionality, but it is kind of ‘fake’ voice control. It recognises the word you just said, records it and looks for that in the future.
“What we’re moving to is a broad range of words and content to be recognised. So, on the whole, we’ll be using that technology in Microsoft games. All the titles moving forward will be enabled for that. Some of the third party stuff I’m not sure – like Mass Effect – I can’t speak for those games.”
That’s the software sorted – what about the announcement made during Microsoft’s press conference, with regards to Live TV on 360. Foxtel and the Australian market was mentioned by name.
“We don’t have specific announcements around Foxtel at this time,” said Jeremy, “but we will absolutely enable the Zune functionality. You’ll be able to say ‘Zune suggest a movie’ and it’ll take you to a list of movies, you’ll be able to pause, fast forward and rewind with voice control. We will also enable some of the future content – like youtube when it comes to our market. That’s this for Christmas. Our intent is that you should be able to move through the entire Xbox 360 experience through voice control or gestures. It should be a seamless experience.”
Earlier last week we discovered that a company called Appen was involved in voice control testing for Kinect before its release – finishing testing in November 2010. We asked Jeremy – if testing finished late last year, why are we still waiting for voice control?
“I honestly have no idea about those other tests,” he claimed in response. “We had an internal beta testing around the May/June timeframe, but voice came in later. So those particular tests is not something I’m across at all.
“It’s only this year that we’ve been perfecting voice modelling and voice data, because it takes thousands of hours of different demographics and different accent types in order to build that model. We have only been doing that in the first half of this year. We’re continuing that work now.”
Voice control has been promised by the end of the year – but considering the fact we’re currently in June, that’s a pretty generous launch window. We wondered why Microsoft couldn’t be more specific with the date?
“Well,” laughed Hinton, “there’s engineering involved and those guys never want to be too specific.
“But we’re absolutely saying it’ll be done by the end of the year, but I think we’re cautiously hoping it’ll be a little before then.”