Here's a confession: I have absolutely no interest in Microsoft's Kinect.
The controller-free interface doesn't appeal to me. I don't want to dance around my living room or wave my arms to fling boulders at castles. I get bored just thinking about it.
Shouting dragon words in Skyrim might have changed my mind. Kinda.
Within the next few weeks, Bethesda will release a free patch that enables Kinect support for its massively popular role-playing game. You won't get to waggle or wave, but you will get to shout at your television screen. Voice commands like "equip sword" and "quick map" will allow you to perform those respective actions without touching your controller. You'll even get to belt dragon shouts like "Fus Ro Dah" and other semi-pronounceable phrases.
I had the opportunity to test out these voice features at an event in Manhattan earlier this week, and I left more impressed than I expected to be. Outside of a little air conditioner interference, the machine had no trouble recognising any of my voice commands or shouts. It took a second or two for commands to register, but the lag was less severe than I expected. (Just don't put your Kinect next to anything noisy.) And once you get the hang of all of the shortcuts, they're a neat way to swap weapons and use healing items during battle more quickly and efficiently than you can with a controller.
The whole thing is based on your favourites menu. You can go through that list and say things like "assign fire spell" or "assign bow". Then, while wandering through tundras or killing villagers or whatever it is you like to do in Skyrim, you can activate those keywords by saying things like "equip bow" or "equip fire left" (for your left hand).
Dragon shouts are a different story. You can say their English translations without a problem, but to use them in Dragon-speak, you have to hold down a button while speaking. This is because the Kinect only recognises English, a Bethesda representative explained.
You'll also be able to bark orders at followers. (Bethesda says it will reveal a full list of all available Kinect voice commands at some point in the near future.)
This is all especially fun when you want to screw sround with your friends. Wait until they're up against a tricky dragon or surrounded by undead draugr, then shout something like "equip bow" while they're in melee combat. They'll be really annoyed for like, 10 seconds. Until they turn off the Kinect features and defriend you on Facebook.
Another great addition: You can use Kinect's voice commands to sort your inventory items by category, arranging them by value or weight by saying "sort by value" or "sort by weight". Sadly, this much-needed Skyrim feature is only supported by Kinect's voice commands. If you don't have Kinect, you're out of luck.
All that said, this is still nothing more than a gimmick. It's a neat, impressive gimmick, but Skyrim's voice integration isn't going to be the killer app that convinces you to buy a Kinect. Still, it's cool enough to make you start thinking about all of the possibilities that voice controls could bring to gaming. And the patch is free. So if you've already got one of Microsoft's controller-free accessories, voice commands might just make your endless Skyrim sessions more convenient. Or at least more silly.